The theater world experienced a quiet revolution on June 10th as The Band’s Visit beat out splashier Broadway musicals (SpongeBob SquarePants, Mean Girls and Frozen) to win 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Score (David Yazbek), Best Book (Itamar Moses), Best Director (David Cromer) and a pair of statues for its Lead Performers, Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub.
The Band’s Visit, adapted from the 2007 movie, is known for its delicacy, restraint and its sheer humanity, as the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra shows up in the wrong desert town and is welcomed by its Israeli denizens. Shalhoub is Tewfiq (now played by the movie’s Sasson Gabai), the soft-spoken and stiff bandleader, thawed by his rapport with Lenk’s Dina, the confident café owner and de facto mayor of Beit Hatikva, a connection beautifully realized in the song “Omar Sharif,” performed at the Tonys. As the sinuous Dina recalls a childhood listening to Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum on the radio and dreaming of the eponymous dashing sheik, Tewfiq can’t take his eyes off of her. And neither can we, largely due to the way Dina was brought to life by an Israeli movement language called Gaga.
In her acceptance speech, Lenk listed among those to whom she dedicated her award Lee Sher, her Gaga teacher, “who showed me how to be in Dina’s body.”
Gaga (a made-up word) is the innovative vocabulary of Ohad Naharin, the choreographer and artistic director of the Batsheva Dance Company. Now experiencing a global explosion, according to the worldwide artistic director of Gaga, Saar Harari, there are some 130 certified teachers spread through every continent, including centers in New York, Los Angeles, Paris, and Barcelona. Dancers come from all over to train with Naharin at the Suzanne Dellal Centre in Tel Aviv, but his movement is not solely for dance professionals. The class for “civilians,” called Gaga/People, is accessible to everybody, at every age and every physical ability.
The essence of Gaga is to give access to all of your being. A key tenet is “no judgment.” There can be no wrong in a Gaga class: The only rules are no mirrors, no observers and no stopping of movement. These basic principles confer a be-here-now, radical acceptance, an awareness of all of one’s body operating in space and a connectivity to the self and to the group.
Lee Sher (The Miracle Worker), the choreographer who runs dance company LeeSaar with Harari, came on board while The Band’s Visit was in its infancy at the off-Broadway Atlantic Theater. (Another Gaga teacher and former Batsheva dancer, Bobbi Jene Smith, held classes for the Broadway cast.) While Sher rehearsed with all of the actors most days, it was Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub with whom she worked most closely, focusing on their two songs, “Something Different” and “Omar Sharif,” the impact of which spilled over into their scenes together.
Imagery is a main component of Gaga, and a theatrical device to tap into character and emotion (a la the Stanislavski method). This internal work can be subtle and the gestures small; but the effects, nevertheless, are dynamic for the actor and the audience. For instance, Sher advised Lenk to feel the feathers beneath her skin, to feel empty in her chest, and to be strong in her legs and pelvis—to tap into what Gaga calls lena, the main engine between the navel and the groin, “imagining a sun that rolls inside and sends warmth and heat—to connect the eyes to the lena and the physicality to feelings.”
That Katrina Lenk has a dance background no doubt made this process easier to grasp, but all the actors benefited. Adam Kantor, whose Telephone Guy waits by a phone booth hoping his love will call, said he needed to tap into the longing in all of his being, to make the stillness active—a seeming paradox. Sher helped Tewfiq, the widowed bandleader, open his heart to Dina with the image of melting mud. Even the band’s musicians, who are on the stage for the entire show, worked with choreographer Patrick McCullom and associate choreographer Jesse Kovarsky to not only make the transitions seamless, but to convey, by their posture, what the band is and what is once was.
Indeed, the language of Gaga seems poised between traditional dance movement and an acting class, one that helps not just in character development, but extends to what happens on stage in performance. Lenk and Kantor discussed being able to shut off what is known in Zen as “monkey mind”—the critical part of one’s brain–to be more present, open and relaxed, to be available to one’s scene partner. Lenk describes this availability and exploration of “doing nothing” as terrifying to the actor, but tremendously rewarding.
Perhaps we could all benefit from Gaga which, at is core, is both metaphysical and practical in its concrete application to everyday life. Gaga is about finding a deep source of letting go within you; of accessing pleasure with one’s efforts; of finding one’s rhythm—of being “in the groove.”
When I mentioned to Sher that it sounded like every person should do Gaga, she answered, “every actor, every painter, every writer, every artist, every prime minister, every president.” Imagine POTUS doing Gaga; POTUS feeling groovy. Now, that would be “something different.”
Batsheva–the Young Ensemble will be performing Naharin’s Virus at the Joyce Theater in New York City from July 10-22.
Amy Handelsman is a writer and professor of dramatic writing and literature at NYU and Stony Brook University.