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As I waited for Ohad Naharin’s workshop to begin at Peridance last Thursday, I wondered how the master would make his entrance. There was something vaguely religious—devotional—about the scene: Eighty students gathered in one room, anticipating the arrival of a single teacher. Naharin may be today’s most widely worshiped guru of modern dance, thanks to Gaga, the sensation-driven, imagery-guided movement language that he began developing in the 1990s. Dancers who have studied the technique talk about it as a thing of almost spiritual proportions: transformative, liberating, life-altering.
As it turned out, Ohad (who was in town last week for his Batsheva Dance Company’s performances at the Joyce) needed no elaborate introductions, no opening flourishes. He simply walked into the center of the studio—cargo pants, sneakers, blue T-shirt, scruffy beard—and started moving, or, as he might put it, letting himself be moved. His torso and arms began to gently undulate, like seaweed awash in a wave, an image he would come back to frequently. “Make curves,” he said. And we followed, a room full of seaweeds. (His directness, I realized later, only heightens his mystique: How can someone so down-to-earth create such wild, dark, darkly funny dances?)
I began studying Gaga about a month ago, just after Peridance announced its new ongoing classes with Ron Amit, a former member of the Batsheva Ensemble. The technique provides a luscious space for improvisation, a space in which to break out of old patterns, to surprise yourself, to conjure internal sensations and let those guide you, rather than some external notion of position or shape. You start moving at the beginning, and for at least an hour, you don’t stop. “Keep it alive, keep it alive,” the teacher will say. “Make floating your default.” The goal (or one of them) is to achieve a state of readiness, in which the body is available to do anything at any time. Stillness is off limits.
It always takes me a little while to shake off the self-consciousness that, thanks to years of dancing in front of a mirror, I automatically bring to class. (There are no mirrors in Gaga.) But Ohad’s words gradually carried me to a more playful, adventurous realm. Following his directions was like translating little poems—sometimes riddles—into movement. “Make the flesh soft.” “Enjoy asymmetry.” “Collapse into water.” “Collapse up.” “Receive movement from far away, from outside the walls of this room.”
We experimented with one vivid image, feeling, or word after another. Erupting into little tremors, we explored the difference between shaking (“what someone else does to you”) and quaking (“what you do to yourself”). We imagined a dense ball gliding through the cavities of our pelvis, torso, neck, and limbs. We slapped our own bodies all over with increasing force as we counted down from 10. (“It’s very important that you feel a sting,” Ohad said.)
We did tendus, ronde de jambes, pliés, developés, battements, but never with the intention of reaching a static form, always widening our reach, searching for more space between our bones, inside our joints. When we became too stiff, too still, Ohad gave us a brief lesson in worrying, then letting worry slip away.
It was hard work. Peaks of discovery, amusement, curiosity gave way to ruts of frustration, skepticism, exhaustion. At times, I felt I was truly “finding the pleasure in effort,” one of Gaga’s guiding principles, which Ohad stressed again and again. At others, I felt trapped by my own limitations, mental and physical. As I struggled to bring my leg into second position from a penché (a task that does not come easily to me), Ohad told us to “admit where you are weak, and enjoy it.” Now there’s a thought. I can’t say I reached that place of enjoyment at the time; I have a puzzle to revisit.
For me, the high point of the workshop came toward the end, when, after dropping to the floor and “rolling around in sand,” we jumped up and shook off the imaginary granules.
Suddenly, everything in my body felt heavy and light at the same time. My limbs, I could have sworn, were a few inches longer than they’d been just moments before. I felt expansive—practically explosive—yet utterly in control.
Heading back to the Dance Magazine offices along bustling midday Broadway, it occurred to me that I was walking very slowly, receptive to the rush of the city, but floating through it.