Filmmaker Tomer Heymann’s ‘Mr Gaga’ opens Hot Docs

Mr Gaga. Photo by Heymann Brothers Films.

Award-winning filmmaker Tomer Heymann’s Mr Gaga blends remarkable dance sequences, rehearsal footage and previously unseen archival footage to create an intimate portrait of the man behind the world-renowned Batsheva Dance Company, Ohad Naharin. The culmination of eight years of filming, Mr Gaga was recently featured as part of Hot Docs at Palace Cinemas, the first Australian edition of the renowned Canadian documentary film festival, and has just begun screening around Australia. Dance Informa caught up with Heymann to discuss his connection with Naharin and the world of dance.

Tell me about the first time you saw one of Ohad Naharin’s creations for Batsheva Dance Company.

“I remember that it started many years before I brought my camera to Batsheva studio to make this film. I’m talking about 25 years ago as a young man in Tel Aviv. That night, I discovered the whole world of dance and something very unique and special about Ohad Naharin’s style. His style is very emotional, you feel like you’re in it and it’s not even really possible to describe through logical words or description — I felt it was my family, my life on stage and later, at a turning point in my life, I was also someone who was inspired very, very strongly by Ohad Naharin and the company. My body still remembers the moment. I was happy. I smiled and wanted to eat the world after the show. And every year I went to the new creation by Ohad Naharin.”

Ohad Naharin in Mr Gaga. Photo by Gadi Dagon.

Ohad Naharin in ‘Mr Gaga’. Photo by Gadi Dagon.

Do you feel that there’s a connection between the way Ohad approaches dance and how you approach film?

“Ohad’s style is also something very visual and cinematic, you know. I had the feeling with Ohad — even though it’s a real dance show — it’s almost like you’re watching a movie. Something about the way Ohad holds the stage and controls all the elements including light and dressing and timing. You can focus on just one little section of dancers, but at the same time, you are always able to see the whole stage and the drama. The way the dancers move and use their body — there’s something very, very special about Batsheva Dance Company.”

Is that what draws you to his work?

“Yes, definitely. For me, part of art is that it should take you to a different zone or a different level, which means you forget your life for the time you are watching the show. You know, many times I’ve gone to see an opera or theatre or music show, and often, even if it’s good, my mind feels bothered by something else, you know? Like I’m going to see a movie, but in between I’m thinking of my life and about my parents, about my walk earlier that day and about my trip, I’m just not completely there. But when I go to see Ohad’s performances, I really leave myself and am not thinking about daily things that usually bother me. That means that somebody took me to a high emotional state of mind, and that happens to me each time I go to see a Batsheva Dance show.”

How did you actually meet Ohad for the first time in person?

“That’s a funny story actually. At the same time that I started going to see Batsheva every night in Tel Aviv — what can I say? I was a junkie of dance, it was like wow, I don’t need to smoke, I don’t need to drink alcohol, I just need dance into my body — well, at the same time, I was working as a waiter in a small café in Tel Aviv, just as a way to earn some extra money. And every Saturday, a very impressive couple would come to the café, a Japanese woman, very beautiful woman, and an Israeli man, and I was the waiter who served them every Saturday.

And one night after the Batsheva show — I was also in love with one of the dancers —I went backstage with my camera, a professional camera, and the dancers invited me to film. I was walking around, and I saw this guy from the restaurant, and I told him, ‘Hey, how nice to see you. What are you doing here? Did you come to see the show? Wow, it’s a cool show, a strong show.’ And he asked me, ‘What are you doing here backstage?’ And I just asked him what he was doing there because to me he belonged to the coffee place on Saturday. He said to me, ‘My name is Ohad Naharin, and I’m the choreographer and I ask you to turn the camera off as I don’t like you filming my piece.’ So finally these two different worlds collided.”

'Mr Gaga' Director Tomer Heymann. Photo courtesy of Heymann.

‘Mr Gaga’ Director Tomer Heymann. Photo courtesy of Heymann.

So how did you end up convincing him to let you make a documentary?

“Later on, I think Ohad saw me so many times — I needed to pay for so many performances by Batsheva that I was always trying to find complimentary performances or walk in at the last minute. Also, I think he knew me as a filmmaker in Israel with other projects, and he loved the work I created earlier. And only 17 years after our first meeting [laughs], I came to him and finally said, ‘Ohad, I think it’s time. You are 70 years old now, and I want to do a project about you.’ In the beginning, it was really hard for him, though, and he wasn’t sure if he wanted to cooperate with me.”

Why did he come to accept the idea and trust you eventually? Why you?

“We had just spent five days together in New York with a company called Cedar Lake, and I was filming there for five very intense days. At the end of it, I told Ohad, ‘You know, I don’t know anything about you. Where were you born? What were your influences? How did you start to dance?’ And he said, ‘Tomer, I don’t like to talk about the past. Let’s talk about the present and future.’ So then I started my research, a very strong process — I went to New York and Brussels and to Martha Graham Dance Company, and I found archives. Ohad gave me boxes of archives, and he told me, ‘Tomer, I don’t know what I’ve given you, but I have the feeling there’s something there and I trust you, I trust you that you will not use me.’

He trusted me because he knew that I was not coming in for a day or a week to make some stupid, shallow thing, and I think he sensed my passion and my connection to the form of dance. I’m happy I was so determined not to give up because Ohad is not always very easy; he’s a man full of complexes. I needed to work really hard. You know, they say in Hebrew, you have the onion and you need to strip the layers step by step until you get to the core of the onion, and that’s what I tried to do and that’s what happened between me and him.”

Mr Gaga has been eight years in the making. How has your friendship with Ohad relationship changed?

“It has changed a lot. I discovered a man with a big heart, a big, big heart. I also discovered someone who has been really brave and changed a lot through the years. I was really shocked to hear how tough and hard he was with dancers 30 years ago in New York. In the studio, he has changed so much. He’s so much softer and full of patience. Now, he looks for harmony and would never be as negative as he was before. So it was really nice to be a witness to those changes and, in fact, he gets much more from the potential of the dancers this way. And I think we are now really good friends. I think we got really, really close.”

Tell me about your own experience with Ohad’s movement language, Gaga.

“Ohad often said to me that I should try Gaga, but I was always very shy to dance, I was too self-conscious. I knew the moment I saw the dancers I would be jealous of how well they could move their bodies. It was hard for me as someone with no experience, nothing. But then a few years later, I went through a crisis in my personal life when I came home and the man I was sharing my life with, which was a big, big love story, left me — he returned after a year — and I was shocked and I was lost, I was full of sadness. I stopped walking and didn’t want to do anything. I almost lost all passion for life. After a month or two, I got a phone call from Ohad saying, ‘Hey, what’s happened to you? I haven’t heard from you in a long time.’ He didn’t know I had had a crisis. I didn’t say too much, but he could sense how deep my sadness was, and he said, ‘Please, Tomer, I don’t care about the movie right now, I care about you. I’ll put you on the list for Gaga. Please do me a favour and just come.’

When I arrived for the class, the teacher covered the mirror. As you know, this is highly unusual, but the teacher said to us, ‘No, we are not here to look at ourselves, we need to go inside of our body and discover your body.’ And I didn’t really know what he was talking about, but after three sessions, I went back to the streets of Tel Aviv, and I was like, wow. The sound of birds came back to my life, and I saw the colour of the sky again, and I went to eat ice cream – for two months I wasn’t able to try ice cream but after Gaga I finally tasted it again, so what can I tell you? Through Gaga, I was connected again to something deep within myself. And I am not a professional dancer, you know? So I’m proof that Gaga is for everyone.”

Mr Gaga. Photo by Gadi Dagon.

‘Mr Gaga’. Photo by Gadi Dagon.

Is that your hope for this film? That it will inspire audiences to see the power of dance in their own lives?

“Yes, in particular to see the power and ability of dance to heal. Through Mr Gaga, people will hopefully connect with themselves and maybe, just maybe, even ask themselves questions about their choices in life and be moved to reflect over what will come.”

It’s sort of like when you went to see Ohad’s creations for the first time, isn’t it? Those performances moved you and changed your life, and in a way, it sounds like you hope that by making this film about Batsheva, you might help others to connect with dance in a similar way.

“Now when you put it in such words, it’s beautiful what you’re saying right now. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but it’s beautiful really, the idea that what happened to me, that maybe now, so many years later, I will share it with the universe. It’s true and that’s a beautiful way to describe it. I didn’t see it because I’m too close, I’m living it, but my body smiled when you chose those words.

I also think it sends a very positive message to young dancers now who don’t know how to find their own way. Ohad, he started dancing when he was 22, which is very late. Then he went to dance with the Martha Graham company. And he was brave and daring enough to leave that company because he felt that, although it was a big name, it felt empty to him. Now, not many dancers at the beginning of their career would be brave enough to do that. Later on, he also left the Maurice Béjart company. He had that courage even before he was ‘Ohad Naharin’, before he had Batsheva, you know? He was just a lonely guy in New York, broke, no family, no connections, he was nobody but still he listened to himself. And I think that’s the most important thing in dance, to not just blindly follow others or go with the mainstream but to be able to say, ‘No, I need to find my way.'”

Screenings for Mr Gaga

Melbourne: June 30 Cinema Nova: Exclusive season 

Brisbane: June 30 New Farm Cinema. Season commences.

Hobart: State Theatre

  • Thursday June 30 6.00pm
  • Saturday July 2 1.00pm
  • Sunday July 3 3.30.pm
  • Monday July 4 6.00pm

Sydney: Roseville Cinema: Commencing Sunday 31st July at 2:30 pm

*For more details follow the Australian Facebook Page at www.facebook.com/mrgaga.in.australia.

 By Grace Gassin of Dance Informa.

Photo (top): Mr Gaga. Photo by Heymann Brothers Films.

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