Learning a new language

Gaga technique as seen by three performers from the Paris Opera Ballet

By Elsa Vinet 18 September 2018

© Julien Benhamou / OnP

Learning a new language

A leading figure in Israeli contemporary dance, Ohad Naharin makes a definite distinction between his choreographic language and the technique he developed alongside it, a technique addressed to both experienced dancers and non-dancers alike: Gaga. During rehearsals for Decadance, the dancers of the Paris Opera have been discovering this new approach, - one that affords great liberty of movement. Marion Barbeau, Daniel Stokes and Aurelien Houette give us their impressions.

Marion Barbeau en répétition, 2018
Marion Barbeau en répétition, 2018 © Julien Benhamou / OnP

Marion Barbeau

I had already encountered Gaga technique during my training, but this is the first time I’ve approached it in any depth. It’s a language that is fairly remote from classical vocabulary, beginning with the organisation of the classes, which completely changes the teacher-pupil relationship: the teacher (if one can really use the term) is in the centre of the studio and the dancers spread out around him or her. S/he gives instructions, which we then adapt according to our own perceptions. This can create something completely different from one individual to another and leads us to use our muscles in a different way, which will certainly be useful for our practice of classical dance.

In ballet, we know where we want to go, the gesture we want to make, it’s all been done before. We know our objective and work to attain it. With Gaga, it’s vaguer, there can be a thousand different combinations, and sometimes we have difficulty being aware of our own bodies. When you are told, for example, “Move only your shoulder blades”, it’s like rediscovering the existence of your shoulder blades! But this gives us great freedom: we can really be ourselves. The important thing is to take the class seriously, but without taking yourself seriously. What’s interesting is to be involved in the work and the research, whilst allowing our carefree, childlike side to resurface.

Gaga is like a toolbox because one is constantly improvising: this prepares us for the passages we will have to improvise in Decadance. This technique allows us to develop a particular awareness of our bodies, which is also very useful when tackling the choreography of Decadance. Last season I danced The Art of not Looking Back by Hofesh Shechter, [another Israeli choreographer, also from the Batsheva Dance Company]. There are similarities between the two choreographers, notably in the musicality, the importance of percussion which gives to the dance a certain tribal quality. But there are some real differences, principally in the use of hands. Hofesh Shechter told us that 80% of the piece was in the palms of our hands. It’s very different in Ohad Naharin’s choreographies, in which there is a natural looseness in the hands which accompany the movement.   
Daniel Stokes en répétition, 2018
Daniel Stokes en répétition, 2018 © Julien Benhamou / OnP

Daniel Stokes

I had never done Gaga before and the classes at the Paris Opera have helped us to understand this approach to movement. I am sure it can help us a lot in our practice of classical dance, because we learn to use our bodies differently and to go towards new sensations, notably in terms of letting go. In a major work from the ballet repertoire, when you feel pain somewhere it’s essential to be able to relax this or that muscle and find strength elsewhere.

I have found great freedom in this less formal approach to movement, although one must also be really concentrated. The teacher invites us to work from images and sensations. Part of each class is devoted to improvisation: this is a moment where we can explore the Gaga language for ourselves, and there will be improvised passages on stage. The sensations are not easy to attain, because we concentrate on parts of the body we are not used to working with, like the sternum, arms, shoulder blades and pelvis. We explore different ways of isolating these areas and working on them in a relaxed manner in order to move them differently. We also experiment a lot with our joints: how the shoulder moves when you move your elbow. But the most important thing is the idea of pleasure: we are told to execute movements that please us, that make us feel good whilst remaining attentive to our sensations.

Practising Gaga language has helped us to tackle the choreography of Decadance, particularly in terms of energy. For example, when we have to do staccato or rapid movements, or movements with the upper torso or the pelvis, we must remember what we did in class and the sensations we experienced.   

Aurélien Houette en répétition, 2018
Aurélien Houette en répétition, 2018 © Julien Benhamou / OnP

Aurélien Houette

I’d been hearing about Gaga for a long time but I’d never had the opportunity to practise it. I’ve been in the Company for nearly twenty years and even now I’ve discovered a new way of dancing, of conceptualising dance. In this technique I’ve encountered themes that connect the physical and material with energy, with the immaterial and imaginary ... I really have the impression of reaching deep into the essence of things.

I see great complementarity between Gaga and classical dance. Generally speaking, contemporary dance has always brought a lot to classical dance, notably in terms of body awareness, of what’s happening inside ... For example, we’ve been working a lot on the pelvis. For us classical dancers, it’s difficult to make use of this area which we tend to use as a fixed foundation that supports us. With Gaga, we’ve been learning to approach it as a separate articulation that can be supple and malleable. Gaga also makes us work on our relationship with space and its density. We have a tendency to close our eyes to attain the sensation of relaxation more easily; but the teacher constantly asks us to keep our eyes open, to stay connected with what’s happening around us. So it’s a question of both introspection (staying connected to your body, to your muscles, bones and organs), and the idea that you must keep the door open to sensations from outside, to let the energies circulate.

For me, the right sensations are just as difficult to attain as in my usual practice of classical dance: it takes us years to understand our bodies and find what we’re looking for. As dancers in the Paris Opera Ballet, we have a solid training, we know how to apprehend our bodies. This makes the work easier, but I think you need years of practice in Gaga if you want to get the maximum out of it.

This technique incites us to deepen our sensorial perceptions, with particular emphasis on our energies: explosive, gentle, external, internal, rapid, slow etc. It’s still difficult for us to harness rapid energy whilst being in a rather gentle state of mind. But the goal of this technique is the liberation of the spirit through the conditioning of the body; to allow the body to surpass its limits so as ultimately to succeed in forgetting them. It is this work on energy that is to be found in the choreographic language of Naharin, particularly in Decadance. Certain passages are both extremely fast and generous in their amplitude, which necessitates ways of increasing speed to the maximum. And then very slow passages. This contrast is what characterises Gaga, and, by the same token, Israeli dance today.    

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