A Conversation with Ohad

June 20, 2007

Ohad Naharin is taking his Batsheva Dance Company to the Midwest and the West Coast this month. Known as one of today’s most interesting choreographers, he creates funny/sad/fierce collages of pure dance and interactions that invite the audience in—sometimes literally. The dancers in this Tel Aviv-based company perform with an exploratory feeling that gives them a quality of vulnerability. Part of the secret of why his dancers look so human, rather than highly polished, is a technique he has developed called Gaga (see sidebar). Last July at the Lincoln Center Festival, his piece Telophaza was performed to standing ovations. While he was in New York, I got a chance to sit down with him at his hotel and talk about his work. The conflict between Israel and Lebanon had just begun. —Wendy Perron

You danced with both Graham and Béjart. Can you talk about them as influences?

Béjart and Martha Graham were stations in my career. I spent time in their companies, but they influenced very little my work. I learned from those experiences, but they didn’t influence me like Merce Cunningham, Billy Forsythe, or Pina Bausch. David Gordon did a solo for me when I was working in New York. I really liked him. He has a nice sense of multi-dimensional movement. The way he perceived the relationship of space to our body was important for me to learn.

What is “gaga”?

Gaga’s the name of the movement that the company is now trained in daily. With Gaga we discover our movement patterns, and we become attuned to our weaknesses and to the places of atrophy in our bodies. We become more efficient in our movement and it allows us to go beyond familiar movements. We connect to our joy of dance and to our explosive power. The dancers become really great interpreters and also inventors of movement.

I’ve noticed that your dancers sometimes look awkward onstage. They are not always perfectly aligned—they may be a little off to the side. We feel them as human beings, rather than as performers, as entertainers. Do you work to get that kind of dimensionality?

When you talk about awkwardness, you mean it in a conventional way. I believe that, deep down, this can be just as beautiful. What is conventionally regarded as elegant and symmetrical can actually feel stiff and boring. I’m still creating what I think is beautiful movement, only it can be with a sense of distortion. Like an electric guitar distorts the sound, but you always feel the source of the sound.

How does the current conflict between Israel and Lebanon affect you as an artist?

I don’t separate my artistry from my life. My life and my work is all one thing. I’m affected by what’s going on, of course.

Companies like Hubbard Street, Ailey, and Nederlands Dans Theater have your works in their rep. But in the last few years, you have created works only on Batsheva. Why?

I’ve had very good experiences with dancers outside my company. I learned a lot from these makings. But my dancers help me to create more keys. A lot of the dialogue I have with dancers is about finding keys to give them in order to take out what’s already in them—not just to teach them new things, but to show them what they have and develop it. The Batsheva dancers are so amazing in making movement that is rich, intelligent, and the kind of movement I could never do. It’s interesting for us to teach each other, so it’s not just my movement. This is why I will only choreograph with my dancers, because there’s a sense of real trust. If I would come to a company with a lot of beautiful dancers, and if I ask them to make movements, it would be a very slow process to come out with movements that are satisfying. With my dancers, we’ve done five-minute sessions with a stop watch. Instant movement-making! Many times the most beautiful movement happens in those five minutes.

When you tour this fall, will you be dancing at all?

No, no. I did a one-man show that is still running in Israel right now. I perform my music and dance in nightclubs. But it’s very little dance. It’s on a stage that’s like 10 feet by 10 feet.

I’d love to see that.

Well it’s a lot of Hebrew. But maybe I’ll translate it and bring it here. This is where I get my performance fix. But I don’t have this desire to dance with my dancers onstage. I dance with them in the studio because I teach gaga. It means more to me now. The sensations of dancing have been really turned on through the gaga. I get more pleasure from my nerve endings, from being in space as a dancer—nothing to do with performing. It heals me to dance, keeps me sane. I can connect to my madness and to my passion.

What do you think the role of the artist is in society?

I don’t think we have a special role. I think we have the role that everybody else [has]: to connect to universal ethics. And we should never listen to people who seek revenge.

Interesting, coming from where you come from.

Well, unfortunately, that’s the mistake that has been made in our region. People who seek revenge, we hear their voice and see their actions on both sides. The last person one should listen to is the one who seeks revenge. So I’m talking about my role as an artist. We do what we do out of love, out of passion, because we’re crazy, not because we have a role or because we are supposed to lead anyone. But through dance and art, we can show people that new solutions and new ideas can be much better than old ideas and old solutions.

You’ve done pieces where you bring the audience either psychically or physically into your performance space. Is that because of your belief that everyone should dance?

Well it’s true that I would love everybody to dance. But in my pieces it’s part of my composition. It’s part of creating more tension between more elements. It’s playing with the story and the drama and the manipulation of feelings. It’s not about education. It’s about the moment, the moment that is going to disappear. If 20 dancers invite 20 audience members onstage, then you have 40 people onstage and you can create connection to nostalgia, and prejudice, and you can create insecurity, and you can create humor.

I really enjoy the humor in your work. And yet you have another side too. The range of feelings is quite broad.

Thank you. I look at lightness as a virtue. I believe to laugh at myself is important. It’s through silliness that I can go to higher places and be less self-conscious and use my imagination more.

Do you see a movement toward dance companies becoming more international?

I worked with Nederlands Dans Theater 20 years ago and there were maybe 2 Dutch dancers there out of 30. It’s not a movement but a natural thing. Dancers can travel all over. Look at Pina Bausch, or William Forsythe or with Martha Graham. Dance really has no geographic borders. It’s a personal experience. Batsheva is an Israeli company because we’re from Israel, but I don’t have anything more in common with another Israeli choreographer than I have with a choreographer from Finland. Dance is a living example of experiencing life from a different place, not through prejudice, or religious, national, or ethnic connotation.

It seems to me that in Israel more of the young dancers are likely to have had military experience than in the U.S.

In Israel when people really want to dance, they will find a military service that will allow them to dance. We have two soldiers in our junior company.

I feel that there’s an intensity to the way your company dances. So I think that if they’ve had this experience where they’ve had to fight for their lives that maybe . . .

No, this is only because you know that we’re from Israel. I think Israel doesn’t have exclusivity on drama, on aggression, on fear, and on fighting for lives. You can grow up in a quiet Midwest home and still be traumatized by your neighbor, your teacher, your parents, or whatever and still fight for your life. I don’t like that people think Israel: war, guns, army. This doesn’t really color who we are. If you take 10 Israelis and look at them as individuals you see how different we are from each other, and how much in common we have with people from other countries.

Do you have anything else to say to our readers?

A lot of the readers of Dance Magazine are dancers. I want to say: Abolish mirrors; break your mirrors in all studios. They spoil the soul and prevent you from getting in touch with the elements and multi-dimensional movements and abstract thinking, and knowing where you are at all times without looking at yourself. Dance is about sensations, not about an image of yourself. Also I would like to tell dancers not to be too ambitious and to connect their dance to their joy, and connect their passion to their effort.