Saturday afternoon I headed to the JCC Manhattan on the Upper West Side for a Gaga movement workshop, which was part of the Israel Non-Stop Festival that runs until March 6th. Gaga is the name of the movement language developed by Ohad Naharin, artistic director of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company, and is the “technique” (although Naharin prefers to call it a movement language) that Batsheva dancers warm up with every day. Since seeing Batsheva perform at the 2006 Lincoln Center Festival – and a few more times since then – I’ve been fascinated by Naharin’s choreography and the dancers’ ability to move powerfully, fluidly, and intentionally, but never forcefully. In addition, the movement simply looks like it feels good to do. So I jumped at the opportunity to take a Gaga class.
The best way to understand Gaga is to experience it – that is, to take a class. And if that’s not possible, then it’s helpful to attend a performance of Batsheva to understand what Naharin’s movement is like. It’s difficult to put my experience into writing, mainly because Gaga is a completely sensual experience. There is no technique nor are there steps. Rather, Gaga is about using all of the senses to become aware of your body, and finding joy and pleasure in movement. One of the first things the instructor told me and the other approximately 30 participants – ranging from young children to the elderly – was that we should move continually for the entire hour. Never stop moving, and always be aware of all of your bones and flesh. No part of the body should be numb or dead.
We started standing and creating circles with our arms – in front of our body, around, behind, above, etc. We then made circles with our legs, chests, and hips, until the whole body was making circular movements. Next, we floated, which was a theme that we returned to often throughout the class. As simple as it sounds to imagine your body floating in air, it was quite challenging to do. It involved recognizing the space under your arms, behind your back, and under your feet. The instructor even suggested to think about our organs floating – particularly our heart and eyes. Other movement throughout the class included shaking the hips and then spreading the shaking to the rest of the body; stretching our faces and mouths while making “stretchy” noises with our voices; doing a “silly dance” with a partner that uses high and low levels; and walking with speed and intention while letting the arms and upper body float and be light. The use of imagery fueled my imagination. At one point, the instructor said, “Imagine you’re in a cold shower, and you’re feeling the water wash over you.” I immediately had chills down my spine, and then became aware of the slightest of movements in my back. At other points in the class, she told us to try carving or pushing through space as if it were honey, running in place on very hot coals, and tasting something “nice”.
(photo of Batsheva Dance Company, by Gadi Dagon)
It’s important to point out that there were no mirrors in the class, nor are there ever mirrors in any Gaga classes. When Wendy Perron interviewed Naharin in the October 2006 issue of Dance Magazine, he said, “Abolish mirrors; break your mirrors in all studios. They spoil the soul and prevent you from getting in touch with the elements and multidimensional 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”.
These words have really stuck with me since reading them back in 2006, and I couldn’t agree more. Since I trained in ballet from a young age, I grew used to being in studios covered with mirrors, but I realize now that I developed a love-hate relationship with them. It was important to look in the mirror to notice correct and incorrect placement and to recognize right from wrong (in ballet technique, there is definitely a right and a wrong). On the other hand, I became too dependent on mirrors to know “where my body was” and to understand the right and wrong way to move, and mirrors caused me (and countless other dancers, I’m sure) to form harsh judgments about my appearance and my dancing. If there were mirrors in a Gaga class, it would be challenging – if not impossible – to truly feel how you’re moving, to dance with the senses and a multidimensional movement quality, which are what Gaga is all about. Throughout the Gaga workshop, I felt very alert and aware not only of my body and the way I was moving, but also of my surroundings and the space between and around my bones, muscles, and flesh. I was using my senses in an integrated way that was both calming and invigorating.
I absolutely loved my first Gaga experience, and I left feeling more alert and in touch with my body. Although Gaga classes aren’t offered in New York on a regular basis, the instructor mentioned after class that whenever Batsheva company members are in town, they offer classes at a studio in the city. I’m definitely taking Gaga the next time they’re here.
(photo of Batsheva Dance Company, by Gadi Dagon)