En-Corps 19

The choreography of the speaking body: dancing Gaga with Ohad Naharin


Despina Karagianni*


Ohad Naharin, Mr Gaga[i], is considered to be one of the most radical and innovative chorographers of our ages. He was born on a kibbutz in 1952. His father was a doctor in psychology as well as an actor, and his mother was a dance teacher. After he served in the army, his mother encouraged him to audition for Batsheva, the company founded by Martha Graham and the Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild in the 1960s[ii]. Since 1990 he has been the artistic director and choreographer of the Batsheva Dance Company, based in Tel Aviv, Israel.

When he was young, a serious back injury, which he attributes to a lack of respect for his body and to excessive competition, inspired him to develop a movement language and a dancing technique, which he called “gaga”. «Gaga is a set of invented words and phrases designed to provoke movements which together constitute an anti-technique, a way to escape the tried-and-tested styles of modern and contemporary dance and break into a new range[iii]». At first he named it kaka, which roughly translates as “crap” in Hebrew, but once his method started to become popular, he chose “gaga”, because it sounds like the gibberish noises a baby makes, prior to forming meaningful words, just as Gaga movements come before any conscious meaning is placed on them.“This equates to the unselfconscious way a child moves before their behavior becomes socially and culturally conditioned”[iv]

Additionally, the words that constitute the Gaga lexicon, sound like baby talk, and operate as metaphors, (e.g. “Lena’’ is the engine between the navel and the groin, or “mika” which refers to pulling bones out of soft flesh), or as micropoems, (e.g. ‘‘collapse up”). Gaga isn’t a movement lexicon destined to be memorized and executed by the dancers uniformly, as in the case of classic and contemporary dance teaching (e.g. plié, arabesque, etc.). The teacher uses meaningless words or imagistic[v] promptings, which are perceived by the dancer and, through an operation similar to the incorporation (corporisation) of the signifier, the last produces movement. Gaga is a demand for producing “bodily associations”[vi].

The teaching of Gaga aims to capture the effect of jouissance, in the sense of the affect – the palpitation of the living body, due to the insult of the signifier. This method constitutes a work-in-progress with the body events, an effort to decrypt and interpret[vii] the traces inscribed in the body, after the encounter with the language events[viii]. It is about a modulation of the imaginary body to the experience deriving from the Real of the lalangue. Dancing the captured resonance of the incorporated signifier[ix] is the product of this method. 

There is no right way for dancing gaga. Mirrors as well as audiences are forbidden during teaching, a condition that is essential for the dancers to concentrate on the experience of their bodies, and not on the image. This method is an intimate and subjective research of the body: "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[x]."

The choreographies of Naharin come from the synthesis of the different way each dancer interprets his own encounter with the language. Naharin believes that what is important is not the response of the dancer to the music but rather, the invention of an intrinsic movement, which will tie the effort of the body to the pleasure[xi]“These grooves are the dancer”. The teacher of the gaga becomes a safety net for the dancer to proceed beyond the limits of the familiar and common ways[xii]. At the same time, the dancer must be aware of the position of his own body and of the other dancers in the space. The condition is that he draws satisfaction from the pain of even the most demanding movement: “always keep remembering to find the pleasure in the pain”[xiii].

Naharin considers gaga as healing. The dancer must listen to the body. If he doesn’t the body turns to dead flesh. Therefore, he has to adjust to the weakness and to the infirmity, and thereupon to produce magnificent movements[xiv]. At the performance, the audience watch the dancers moving in a peculiar and bizarre way, even in the absence of music. Sometimes a traditional song, the articulation of number sequences, of words, or silence itself, become the music for an unexpected and uncanny choreography to take place. What is of great importance here is the materiality and the rhythm of the signifier.

The choreographies of Naharin exemplify the body as a surface for the inscription of the locus of the Other of the signifier. What is at stake in Mr Gaga’s way of dancing, is the interpretation of the effect of the symbolic on the body which is the mystery of the union between the body and language, which belongs to the register of the real. As far as Gaga involves the interpretation of language events with regard to the body, aiming at pleasure and excluding meaning, it operates as a sinthome. Moreover, as far as this method constitutes a sublimation for Naharin’s impotence to dance according to the ordinary rules, as well as an exaltation of this weakness to a highly innovative and exceptional art, it functions as an escabeau[xv] (S.K.Beau). Gaga is a fertile ground for the operation of beauty as a defense and for the dancer to make himself the dupe of the Real.


* Member of the Hellenic Society-NLS, NLS and WAP.

[i] Mr Gaga (2015) is a documentary about Ohad Naharin, by Tomer Heymann.

[ii] Subinsept, A.D. Going Gaga for Ohad Naharin. The New York Times Styles Magazine. September 19, 2015.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Gittings, D. J. (2013). Building Bodies with a Soft Spine. Gaga: Ohad Naharin's invention in practice, its roots in Feldenkrais and a vision of a pedagogy. Dissertation Project for a Master of Arts Degree in European Theatre.

[v] Imagism: A movement in early 20th-century English and American poetry which sought clarity of expression through the use of precise images. The movement derived in part from  the aesthetic philosophy of T. E. Hulme and involved Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Amy Lowell, and others. According to this movement, the rhythmic flow of the sound of words constitutes a new idea, an invention.

[vi] Bastian, K. (2015).  Unsettled and On the Margin: The Grotesque in poetry of Kim Hyesoon and Carl Phillips, and the choreography of Ohad Naharin. Thesis. Interdivisional Committee for Dance and Literature.

[vii] The verb “interpret” here condenses the meanings of understand, translate and perform.

[viii] See also Miller, J.A. (2003). Lacanian Biology, p. 93. Psychogios. Athens. (Originally published as «Jacques-Alain Miller, (2000). Biologie lacanienne et événement de corps, La Cause freudienne, n° 44, pp. 7-59).

[ix] Ibid p. 120.

[x] Perron, W. A Conversation with Ohad. Dance Magazine.  Retrieved from http://dancemagazine.com/news/A_Conversation_with_Ohad/

[xi] The Jewish Theatre Presents Ohad Naharin’s GAGA, perf. Ohad Naharin and Judiska Teatern, The Jewish Theatre, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yPcxl4mXUIs

[xiii] Natalie Portman, Ohad Naharin, and Heymann Brothers on Mr. Gaga documentary, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AtjETe3e92c

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Miller, J.A. The Unconscious and the Speaking Body. Presentation of the theme for the Xth Congress of the WAP in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.