Catherine Romano’s monthly column examines the rich underground dance scenes in Toronto. Covering performances, events and parties, Stage RIGHT offers a peek into dynamic subcultures through engaging interviews, observations and photographs.
Gaga Workshop, Luminato Festival 2012
Toronto Public Library: Parkdale
June 16, 2012
I don’t think I’ve ever heard the word flesh used as many times as I did on Saturday afternoon on the lower level of the Parkdale Library. The scene in that expansive, institutional like space wasn’t a chat about True Blood, instead it was a Gaga Workshop, as part of Luminato Festival (and if your thinking Lady Gaga, this workshop has nothing to do with the blond, attention-seeking star).
Gaga is a movement technique, with a very specific vocabulary, class structure, and fundamental belief in the “healing, dynamic, ever changing power of movement.” Gaga was developed by Ohad Naharin, the celebrated Artistic Director of Batsehva Dance Company. The technical training is divided into two tracks: Gaga/dancers and Gaga/people. Gaga/dancers is tailored to professional dancers (and also the daily training of Batsheva Dance Company dancers), while Gaga/people is open to the public, all ages, with little to no movement experience.
I participated in a Gaga/people workshop this past weekend, and while I was cheating a little because I do have dance training, I wasn’t the only one. In fact, within the group of 60 people, many were obvious dancers — those were the ones who stepped in the centre of the linoleum floor and starting pointing and flexing their toes. The non-dancers were sitting on the side-lines, looking a little intimidated, but still curious.
Rachael Osborne, a senior Batsheva dancer, led the workshop. She was late, but it made no difference to the group. She was kind, with a slight Australian accent, wearing a grey, cotton shirt with extra long sleeves that made her hands disappear, a pair of over-sized soccer looking shirts and mustard coloured socks. This struck me as liberating and bizarre. Coming from a classical dance background, this certainly wasn’t familiar dance teacher attire. But then again, this was Gaga.
Other notable differences: no mirrors inside the workshop or class (not even for Batsheva Company members), no observers (no photos, no filming and everyone in the room must participate), a seemingly random collection of music (hip hop, experimental, classical), and the constant act of moving (no breaks, no stops between transitions).
Ms. Osborne began the workshop by asking participants to feel the “flesh sitting on the bones” and “friction between the flesh and the bones,” then moved on to describing “the rope of the arms” and “snake of the spine.” All of these phrases seemed more about intellectualizing movement, rather than muscling though dances steps. The very act of thinking was the catalyst for movement, and initiated a transfer of weight between the feet, out-stretched, liquid-like limbs and contractions of a supple spine. And all of this happened at the same time, like some sort of complex chain reaction with endless possibilities for creative expression.
As the workshop progressed, the directions became more detailed and descriptive, and Ms. Osborne tossed a few more challenges to the group. Perhaps the most playful request was when she asked participants to “find their groove” (and this had nothing to do with the music that was playing). Instead, it was an attempt to “turn up the volume of listening to the body” and search for an innate sense of rhythm, while integrating all of that flesh, bones and snake stuff.
The workshop ended with “a quake” and just as you might assume, it was a kind of shaking and rumbling of the body, mostly the hips, which reverberated through the tailbone, up each vertebrae, across the ribs, along the biceps and triceps, down the elbow, along the forearm, winding around the wrist, and to the metacarpals of the hand (and of course one must not forget to consider how that quake affected the legs, neck and skull). It was never-ending, exhausting, frustrating and yet exhilarating.
As a former dancer with ballet and modern dance training (both in Graham and Limon technique), it was extremely difficult to work in this way. But I experienced new ways of moving (choreographic inspiration!) and was reacquainted with the powerful use of imagery (just for a moment, think about the blood zipping through your veins and bones poking through your flesh).
Cerebral and experiential, perhaps Gaga is the embodiment of the elusive mind-body connection.
P.S. I had the opportunity to view Batsheva Dance Company’s performance of Sadeh21, (translated to Field21, in English), on Saturday night. The performance was complex and tense, but even humourous at times. A cast of 18 dancers and their articulated joints, stretched flesh, extended limbs and contorted torsos gaga-ed across the stage. The tempo went from slow and almost tedious to quick and chaotic. Solos, trios and large group demonstrated that the body can move in the most absurd ways, looking uncomfortable, and yet beautiful. Gaga training was obvious, but also classical ballet technique such as perfect grand plies, battements and partnering.
Costumes were kept mostly minimal with tanks, shorts and leggings, but there were some surprises with ballgowns and backless leotards (highlighting the articulation of the spine throughout the piece). Visually, the dancers were framed within a white/grey stage, with the back (upstage) wall only rising a few feet higher than the dancers. The ledge of that wall became an important element in the last few moments of the show, which some audience members saw as celebratory, and others (such as my seat mates) initially read as tragic. Sadeh21 did comprise of a narrative, but more of a post-modern, pieced-back-together kind of story, told by highly technical dancers and intriguing choreography. This makes it all the more engaging and certainly worthy of accolades for ingenuity.
[Photographs courtesy of Luminato Festival. Photo Credit: Mark O'Neill]