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Profile of Batsheva choreographer
The opposite of macho strength
Marking 60 years, Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin starts each day with a form of dance he came up with himself. His Batsheva dance company was in Cyprus recently for two performances. THEO PANAYIDES meets him
Sitting in the Curium Palace Hotel in Limassol, talking to Ohad Naharin – his Batsheva Dance Company are giving a performance at the Municipal Garden Theatre down the road in a few hours – I’ve got my first question primed and ready. I’ve been on Wikipedia, finding out the basics about Ohad, and I notice he was born in 1952. “So you’ve got a big birthday with a ‘0’ at the end coming up,” I point out. “Or maybe it’s already happened?”
“It’s today!” he beams happily.
Really? He turns 60 today? What were the odds of that little coincidence? (1 in 366, to be precise.) I’ve never interviewed anyone on their 60th birthday before. Then again, I doubt many people approach the occasion as sanguinely as Ohad. He’s been looking forward to 60, he insists – “I’m really, really happy with this number” – and the day itself hasn’t disappointed (alas, he flies back to Israel in a few hours to attend a fund-raiser, not even staying for Batsheva’s show, so he won’t get to celebrate). I assume it also helps that he doesn’t look 60; in fact he looks much younger, brimming with a kind of serene energy.
Partly it’s style. Charisma is a tricky thing to pinpoint, but you know when someone has it and Ohad’s got it. The face is narrow, somewhat rugged (though occasionally reminiscent of the actor Hugh Laurie), the eyes grey-green and ice-cool, the appraising eyes of a director and choreographer which is what he’s been for the past 30 years. He speaks softly, with occasional fluid gestures, quietly imparting (or imposing) a connection across the table. There’s the sense of a secret smile playing on his lips all the time, the feeling of some secret, invaluable knowledge vouchsafed to him alone. He gives the impression of dealing with people and managing problems on a daily basis, and doing it with ease. At one point our photographer calls to say he’s been delayed, and I’m scrambling to arrange a photo before Ohad’s next meeting – but he simply lifts up his mobile phone, relaxes his face into a smile and snaps a pic. Problem solved. (Alas, the photo didn’t make it to the Sunday Mail office before our deadline, due to an email mix-up.)
So yes, style has something to do with not looking 60. But there are other factors too. “Because I live with young people, my bubble –” and he lifts up his arms to suggest a man enclosed in a bubble – “is a lot younger than me”. Almost all the dancers in Batsheva are in their 20s and 30s, and Ohad isn’t far from the truth when he says they all live together. Most of his close friends are also his colleagues, he confirms; “My work and my life are totally mixed”. When there’s a new production to prepare, he’ll spend days on end – 12, 18 hours at a stretch – with the company. “It’s a little bit like a tribe,” he explains. “I don’t like so much a family, the idea of a family – people say Batsheva is like a family, but we’re not. We’re a tribe. And a tribe is people that live together, you know? So we do feel that this is our life, not [just] our job.”
Then there’s the fact of having been a dancer himself, and a lifetime spent taking care of his body – especially through “Gaga”, the technique he’s pioneered in the past couple of decades. He’s never been a smoker, not since choking on a cigarette (cunningly provided by his own mother) at age seven. He’s never been much of a drinker – it’s not really part of Israeli culture – and has only gotten drunk once in his life (on purpose, just to see what it was like). As for eating badly, “I prefer good bread to good cake”.
Above all, perhaps, his trim appearance – like his talent for dancing – can be put down to genes. “I was lucky to get really great genes from my parents. And for dance, this is the most important thing,” says Ohad. “I got from them a very, very –” he hesitates, looking for the words – “easy, flexible, strong body”. He’s now done his bit by passing on those genes to daughter Noga (whose mother is also a dancer). “She’s unbelievable!” he says when the subject comes up. “I have to show you! I just took this picture two days ago”. He rummages on his phone and finds a photo of a little girl standing next to her playmate. “You see her jumping?” he exclaims, masking his proud-papa glee in professional interest – and it’s true that the girl is unusually graceful, keeping her back slightly arched and her legs very straight as she jumps. “It looks like she has 10 years of ballet training!”
Noga is three years old. She’s also his first child – and a big reason why Ohad is relatively relaxed about turning 60. “Happiness is not a constant feeling, but it has a lot to do with happy moments,” he muses. “And I can say very clearly that there are many more happy moments in my life now than I had before”. He used to be more aggressive, more ambitious, more egotistical – but “in dance it’s very important to understand delicacy, sensitivity. The opposite of numbness.” Ego and ambition get in the way of that, because you’re so focused on your goals and less on what he calls “the quality of the moment”.
Maybe it’s the fact of a birthday with a ‘0’ at the end of it, but Ohad seems inclined to wax philosophical. “It’s much more playful, it’s much more of a game today,” he says, once again comparing his life with the way it was 10 or 20 years ago. “It’s much more about taking what you do seriously, but taking yourself less seriously – I think it was the opposite before. And just to find that balance in my life. A recognition that to love is much more fun than to be loved. So it’s much less about being needy, and much more the idea that giving is such a great thing”. He used to lose his temper – not scream and shout but say “very hard”, very hurtful things – but hardly ever does that now. “I really learned to turn conflict into dialogue. And to see that, with almost every conflict, you can turn it into a dialogue.”
Every conflict? He and Israel are almost the same age (the Jewish state was founded in 1948), yet his country seems as mired in conflict – and as far from dialogue – as ever. How does he feel about the place? “Israel?” he asks, and shakes his head wryly. “I feel there are wonderful people doing stupid things. And some not so wonderful,” he adds with a grin. “But it’s amazing how good people can still do very, very stupid things.
“But I’m optimistic,” he goes on, “because I feel that there is progress. You know, 20 years ago very few people would talk about two states, a Palestinian state. But now everybody understands – or most people understand – that it’s the only solution. Nobody was talking about dividing Jerusalem, [now] a lot more people are talking about dividing Jerusalem”. Really? Or is he just extrapolating from his own artistic circles? Not at all, he insists. Yes, there are extremists on both sides – but they’re vastly outnumbered by the moderates, most of whom are “just waiting for better leaders, or a better moment. And I think that it will happen.”
He himself was born on a kibbutz, in the early days of the great Zionist dream – an old-school, hardcore kibbutz emphasising allegiance to the group over the individual, or indeed the family. All the children lived together, and only saw their parents for three hours a day (from 4 to 7pm); all the adults worked together, ate in a communal dining-room, didn’t choose their work and didn’t get paid for it. Ohad’s parents, both intensely creative people (his dad was an actor and writer, his mum a musician and dancer who later became an inspirational Dance teacher), stuck it out for a few years but finally left when the boy was five – though he himself has fond memories (it was fun for a child) and recalls the bond he felt with the other kids, eight of them in total but “connected like twins”. He kept in touch with two boys, but both were killed in the Yom Kippur War of 1973; Ohad also saw action in that war, but only as part of an “entertainment unit” (a kind of Army band), having been spared combat duty due to an old ankle injury.
Maybe he thinks about all that, and what might’ve been – the fact, for instance, that he too might’ve been gone at 21, if it weren’t for that injury – as he slips into a new decade. 60 is quite a big deal, I point out: it becomes harder to call yourself middle-aged, the final stretch looming inescapably now. One thing’s for sure, however: getting older isn’t going to make him more religious, as often happens with people. “It’s not for me,” he says firmly. “I know – I can not prove it, but I know – that God is an invention of Man. It’s very obvious. Not [just] to me, it’s obvious that there is no God. I can not prove it, but I know it. So it’s hard for me to take it seriously.”
Instead his thoughts turn to Man (and Woman), the physical reality of our bodies and the fraught, delicate subject of our mental and emotional well-being. Ohad Naharin’s been lucky, especially in terms of his career. He had the genes, and he had the opportunities; he started dancing seriously at 22, and got accepted to study in New York under Martha Graham at 23. “There was always not a very big gap between what I wanted and what happened,” he admits. “I wanted to dance, and I found a place to dance”. Yet that’s not the whole story. It doesn’t include the messy process of striving for some kind of excellence. It doesn’t explain, in itself, why he can sit in the Curium Palace, on his 60th birthday, and emit this impression of serene energy and secret knowledge.
The secret knowledge is Gaga – the technique he developed years ago, long before the name got appropriated by a glitzy pop diva. It’s a kind of yoga, a kind of ballet, a way of talking about the body. His dancers start each day with a Gaga workout, but it works for non-dancers too. “It’s about strengthening the engine,” toning the muscles, getting rid of all the little dead spots so that “without building huge muscles, we become a lot stronger.
“It’s the opposite of macho strength,” he explains with the fervour of a guru. “I’m talking about longevity, a feminine kind of strength – something that’s more about softness but at the same time can be very explosive, very quick”. And it also goes together with something else, that sense of perspective he’s painfully developed over six decades, the way he’s tried to change his “patterns” and subdue the forces of conflict and ego. “It has a lot to do with yielding,” he explains of his newfound balance. To what? To your body? “It’s yielding to your body, it’s yielding to the force of gravity, it’s yielding to your weakness. Admitting your weakness – how far we are from being perfect – but at the same time things can still be wonderful, without the need to be perfect.”
Nothing is perfect, but his life does seem pretty wonderful. A few years ago, an Israeli website conducted a poll to find the ‘200 Greatest Israelis of all Time’; Ohad Naharin came in 137th – not a bad result, after 60 years on the planet. Any final thoughts, before I go back to Nicosia and he goes off to rehearse with his “tribe”? The secret smile plays on his lips again: “Just to remind people to dance every day”. Will do. Oh, and happy birthday.