In the 1970s, Ohad Naharin’s career as a dancer in Israel was just taking off when he left for America to be with his wife. Naharin was, at the time, one of Batsheva’s most promising dancers, doted on by Martha Graham, the iconic American choreographer who helped train many performers in the budding Israeli company. But then he met Mari Kajiwara, an American dancer with the Alvin Ailey company.
“We met in Israel,” Naharin said in an interview from Israel, where he has lived since 1990, the year he became director of the Batsheva Dance Company. “She was with Alvin [as his assistant] when he came here to work with an Israeli company. When I met her, I moved back to New York to be with her.”
But in a way, when the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater premieres his piece “Minus 16” on Friday, he will be back in New York to be with Kajiwara again. She died of cancer in 2001, at the age of 50. And all the performances of “Minus 16” are dedicated to her memory.
“I would have done it in any event,” Naharin said of working with the Ailey company, an African-American centered group, and perhaps the country’s most popular dance company, of any genre. “But to do it to commemorate Mari is really special.”
The name Ohad Naharin is so synonymous with Israeli dance that few realize the revered choreographer spent more than a decade of his career in the United States. In the mid-1970s, he studied at Juilliard, and it was here that he worked as a choreographer from 1978 to 1990, to be with Kajiwara.
It is not the first time Naharin has staged a work with the Ailey company — his piece “Black Milk” premiered with Ailey in 2002. But with his wife now gone almost a decade, he seems especially keen on preserving the memory of her.
“When I approached him about doing the work, he really wanted to dedicate it to her,” said Robert Battle, the company’s new director, and only its third in its 53-year history. “There’s a duet in the work that’s very personal to him,” he added, noting that the piece is made up of four older Naharin works with music ranging from techno and “Hava Nagila” to Vivaldi’s “Stabat Mater”; the Vivaldi music accompanies the duet.
Battle first saw “Minus 16” (1999) performed by Batsheva a few years ago, and thought it would be make a bold addition to the Ailey repertory in his first season as director. “It’s an important statement for our company as we take our next step into the future,” Battle said.
The piece features a brief segment of audience participation, which Battle hopes will signal to viewers that he wants the company to be even more inviting. And the piece is danced using Naharin’s signature style, the Gaga method, which represents a major departure from the company’s roots in African-American dance and Lester Horton technique. Gaga asks dancers to move in accordance with their own internal sensations, rather than their reactions to their reflections in a mirror.
To get Ailey dancers ready, Battle brought in a former Batsheva dancer, Danielle Agami, who worked extensively with the dancers for over a month. Before Agami began the daily three-hour sessions to practice the piece, she taught a special 90-minute class on the Gaga technique.
“The language helps support the work,” said Agami, “but sometimes it was a very big mental leap.” Though Ailey dancers are some of the most capable she’s ever worked with, she explained that it wasn’t easy getting the dancers, who were so confident in their own style, to adapt to Naharin’s.
“They’re very used to being flattered,” she said, “but after a while, when they felt they could trust me, then they were willing to go with me.”
Kirven James Boyd, a dancer in “Minus 16,” echoed those thoughts. “One thing I noticed was that a lot of dancers were using more brain power than they’re used to, trying to figure out [Naharin’s] technique and really grasp it,” he said. “For many of us it was the first time we did one of Ohad’s works. But one of the great things about this company is that there’s always a new challenge.”
Naharin flew in from Israel to work with the dancers early on, and he was back this week to put final touches on the piece. But he also planned to stay an extra few days after the premiere this Friday, at City Center, to spend time with Kajiwara’s old colleagues at the Ailey company. Some of them are still working for the company.
“When I met Mari she was already a dancer with the company for ten years,” Naharin explained. “She was very instrumental in the company’s” early years.
Kajiwara, a Japanese-American, had been Ailey’s personal assistant until 1984, when Ailey slowed down as he became ill with AIDS. (He died in 1989.) But Kajiwara had been a dancer with the company since 1970, and still had a long career ahead of her. After Naharin moved to New York, the two co-founded Naharin’s own traveling troupe, Ohad Naharin Dance Company.
His career as a choreographer blossomed. But when Batsheva asked him to be its artistic director, Kajiwara moved with him to Israel, and even joined the company as a dancer and instructor.
Naharin said that the duet for Kajiwara was actually added to “Minus 16” for the Ailey performance. He takes a liberal approach to his works, allowing dancers to improvise, and even changing entire segments himself. And though he has included the duet in other “Minus 16” performances, this time is different. “It seems right,” he said, “especially because we’re doing it for Mari.”
Naharin is well known for his demanding style. To train dancers in the Gaga method, for instance, he covers up all mirrors, which are ubiquitous in dance studios. The practice is central to his choreography, he says, because Gaga requires dancers to listen to the scope of their sensations while still staying connected to the outside world. “They can become clear, efficient, delicate, explosive and beautiful by what it feels like to dance,” he says, “and not by what it looks like in the mirror.”
But for the Ailey company he made a minor exception. The company’s recently built studios in Clinton — all of them with shiny, floor-to-ceiling mirrors — were hard to cover. So he had the dancers simply turn their backs to them. “Eventually, they just forgot the mirrors were there.”
Naharin’s philosophy toward dance is also somewhat at odds with Ailey’s. While Ailey founded his company as a vehicle to promote African-American culture, Naharin believes dance should stress what makes it universal to every culture — that everybody can do it. Gaga is based in that premise, Naharin says, since it requires dancers to express what is private and unique to themselves.
“Dance is much more universal in that way,” Naharin said, “and it’s why I can communicate my dances with people all over the world. Dance is about what unites us, and that has to do with human values, skill, passion and the power of imagination.”
He rejects that idea that there is anything particularly Israeli in his work. The country is too young, he says, and its people from too many places throughout the diaspora for Israel to have any clear dance language. “
There’s no such thing as an ‘Israeli’ movement,” he says, adding, “There is a fine line between nationalistic feelings and pride. Pride can be a very dangerous thing. I care about loving to dance, not being proud to dance.”
Still, he understands why the Ailey company might feel a need to represent African-American culture. He lived in America for many years, he explained, and he knows how sensitive the racial divides in this country still are.
“It’s a very big issue in America, the oppression, that history,” he said. “I think this is part of that healing process,” he added, referring to the Ailey company’s continued assertion of its African-American roots. And yet, he continued: “In dance, national, religious, ethnic and geographic connotations have no importance. That is the beauty of it.”
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs at City Center, 131 W. 55th St., through Jan. 1. Ohad Naharin’s “Minus 16” is performed on select dates only. Visit www.alvinailey.org or www.nycitycenter.org for specific dates and performances, and to buy tickets. Or call (212) 581-1212. Tickets start at $25.