In a small screening room at 92Y Tribeca last Thursday evening, Israeli filmmaker Tomer Heymann said that seeing Batsheva Dance Company perform for the first time felt like “the best drugs I’d ever taken”. It was the start of his fascination with Batsheva and friendship with the company’s artistic director and prolific, influential choreographer, Ohad Naharin. After documenting Naharin and Batsheva a few years ago and feeling dissatisfied with the outcome, Heymann traveled to New York in 2007 to film the choreographer as he staged Decadance for Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet. The result is Out of Focus, a rare and honest glimpse at Naharin’s process in the studio over a five-day period. In spite of his hesitation about being filmed and his disinterest in the concept of documenting, Naharin is articulate, witty, and often philosophical when responding to Heymann’s admirably persistent and probing questions. The film provides the closest, most intimate glimpse of Naharin available to the public eye.
Out of Focus has an intentionally claustrophobic quality, never venturing beyond the walls of Cedar Lake’s large, sunlit studio. Dancers diligently rehearse in the background while Heymann and Naharin chat. The intensity and constantly shifting emotions of everyone involved in the rehearsal process are palpable. Heymann captures the dancers wide-eyed and awestruck by Naharin’s presence. Every time he demonstrates a movement or provides imagery to help them grasp a concept, they become sponges, soaking up his guidance and then pouring it out through their own dancing. Naharin says he is aware of the dancers’ awe – “I’m like a virus. I infect them” – and eagerness for his approval. He hopes that, as the rehearsals continue, that will transform into a “supportive awareness”. More generally, he aims to establish “a very human situation” in the studio. While pushing dancers to take risks and use their bodies in an entirely new and unfamiliar way, he is careful to avoid offending dancers. The camera focuses on Naharin as he closely observes a dancer rehearse her solo. The viewer isn’t certain if he’s pleased, but can sense him formulating constructive feedback that will aid in strengthening her performance.
In spite of the intense working environment, Naharin is genuinely funny. After watching a group of dancers rehearse a brief section from Decadance, he looks pensive and then bluntly says, “I feel like you have no sex life”, causing them to burst into laughter. Growing more serious, he explains that their movement must go beyond technique to reveal something personal, and most of all it must connect to pleasure and enjoyment. “Gaga”, the movement language that Naharin created, is rooted in connecting to pleasure, and he yearns for the dancers to find this not only in class but also in his repertoire. Heymann asks if his choreography is ever dangerous or puts dancers at risk for injury, but Naharin explains that he developed “Gaga” to cope with an injury he suffered in his 20s that left him with constant back pain (Naharin is now in his late 50s). In fact, he is lying on the floor throughout much of the film because sitting upright is too uncomfortable. According to Naharin, finding pleasure in movement protects the body. When asked why he decided to name his movement language, Naharin shrugs, “My movement was worthy of a name.”
Ohad Naharin and Cedar Lake dancers in 2007, photo by Paul B. Goode
Perhaps he doesn’t like being filmed, but Naharin is shameless in front of the camera, often egging on Heymann to ask more: “I am not excited by my choreography”, says Naharin. “By what then?” Heymann asks. Naharin explains that it’s the people performing his work who make it exciting and potentially touching. Later in the film, Naharin smiles when Heymann tells him there are rumors that he’s gay. He admits that he likes the rumors, again suggesting that he enjoys the attention in spite of being a rather private person.
While film and other art forms feel permanent, Naharin “loves the disappearance of dance”. Its fleeting nature keeps him continually interested because “it derives from its vanishing.” He often takes his eyes out of focus (hence the film’s title) when watching rehearsals because it allows him to see his work differently. This interesting and telling exercise implies that his work as a choreographer is never finished. Naharin is always reflecting on and revisiting the meaning behind his movement.
The dance world is well aware of Naharin’s presence and influential impact through his choreography, his Gaga movement language, and his frequently touring company, but rarely hears from the choreographer himself. Out of Focus is not only a gift to the dance world, but also to Naharin. The choreographer might not like documenting, but he and the dance world should be grateful for Heymann’s gem of a film.