Let’s all do the danse macabre

In a brac­ing re­turn to form, Hofesh Shechter’s ex­is­ten­tial an­guish and his of­ten beau­ti­ful chore­og­ra­phy fight to the death

The Observer - The New Review - - DANCE - Luke Jen­nings @LukeJen­nings1

Ten years ago, dur­ing a ques­tion and an­swer ses­sion fol­low­ing a per­for­mance at Lon­don’s Queen El­iz­a­beth Hall, Hofesh Shechter told the au­di­ence that, in his opin­ion, most con­tem­po­rary dance was bor­ing. It was a com­bat­ive state­ment that did lit­tle en­dear him to his fel­low chore­og­ra­phers, but since then he has cre­ated a body of work which, while veer­ing wildly be­tween the thrilling and the baf­fling, has never been re­motely bor­ing.

His big pro­duc­tions, works such as In Your Rooms (2007) and Po­lit­i­cal

Mother (2010), set to thun­der­ing per­cus­sive scores com­posed by Shechter him­self, were as much rock con­certs as dance pieces. They raged against dem­a­goguery, to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism and the death of truth. Spe­cific tar­gets for Shechter’s fury in­cluded the state of Is­rael, in which he grew up, and his mother, who, he an­nounced on the sound­track of The Art of Not Look­ing

Back (2009) “left me when I was two years old”. These venge­ful, noirish works were as com­pelling as they were phys­i­cally deafen­ing, but in pieces such as Sur­vivor (2012), a mis­fir­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion with the sculp­tor Antony Gorm­ley, and tHE bAD (2016), a form­less “at­tempt to make a piece with­out think­ing”, fea­tur­ing dancers in gold uni­tards shout­ing “Mother­fucker!” at the au­di­ence, Shechter seemed to have lost his way.

Grand Fi­nale, which re­vis­its Shechter’s fa­mil­iar, apoc­a­lyp­tic stamp­ing ground, is a strong re­turn to form. Chore­og­ra­phers have de­scribed feel­ing pres­sured to con­stantly rein­vent them­selves, but the best work, as in other artis­tic dis­ci­plines, is of­ten born of an as­sid­u­ous min­ing and re-min­ing of the same strip. Shechter’s artis­tic vi­sion has al­ways been brac­ingly pes­simistic, and the ter­ri­tory that he has made his own is a place of en­tropy, an end-time land­scape of roar­ing winds and en­clos­ing shad­ows, in which men and women ca­per fren­ziedly as ex­tinc­tion draws ever closer.

In Grand Fi­nale, Shechter gives us a ragged pha­lanx of the lost, bat­tling against a mael­strom of sound and en­clos­ing dark­ness. An on­stage sex­tet plays Shechter’s Tchaikovsky-

Men carry on the lolling bod­ies of dead women and whirl them around to waltz tunes from The Merry Widow

in­flected score, backed by a recorded, and very loud, per­cus­sion track. In re­sponse the dancers shuf­fle, shud­der and whirl with manic aban­don. Arms are sup­ple-wristed and out­flung, hips and shoul­ders are loose, cen­tres of grav­ity are low. Over­come by death or ex­haus­tion, bod­ies fold like string pup­pets.

As in his ear­lier work, Shechter seems to be ex­press­ing an an­guished loss of be­lief. In per­sonal in­tegrity, in­clud­ing his own (“I cheated on my wife,” his recorded voice tells us in his 2016 work The Bar­bar­ians in

Love, “I fucked some­one else”), in so­ci­ety and its in­sti­tu­tions, and in the con­se­quen­tial na­ture of hu­man life when faced with the vast in­dif­fer­ence of the uni­verse. In his im­pres­sion of a fa­tally frac­tured so­ci­ety, of a cen­tre that can­not hold, we see our own pan­icked times re­flected. There’s a re­peated mo­tif in Grand Fi­nale of men danc­ing with fe­male corpses. They carry on the lolling, floppy bod­ies of dead women and whirl them around, limbs flail­ing, to sug­ary waltz tunes from The Merry Widow. Again and again in Shechter’s work we see this hope­less striv­ing for or­der – for things as they were be­fore – in the face of chaos and col­lapse.

If all of this sounds grim, and the ul­ti­mate danse macabre, Shechter’s chore­og­ra­phy is of­ten very beau­ti­ful. Im­pulses rip­ple through sway­ing bod­ies, arms and fin­gers un­furl, light catches the turn of a neck. There’s a won­der­ful mo­ment when the 10-strong cast stand mo­tion­less, arms and fin­gers out­stretched. It’s not a freeze, it’s a sus­pended mo­ment of rap­ture, and it makes you won­der if, de­spite ev­ery­thing, things might just turn out all right.

Much of the credit for the dra­matic look of Grand Fi­nale must go to the light­ing de­signer Tom Visser, who paints the stage in down­pour­ing washes of dark­ness against which the dancers glim­mer and flicker. At times it’s like watch­ing scraps of old film that have been hap­haz­ardly lashed to­gether. There’s a sense of nar­ra­tives start­ing to un­fold, then cut­ting away and dis­solv­ing.

Tom Scutt’s set, which we rarely view ex­cept in near- dark­ness, con­sists of a half- dozen mov­able mono­liths. These might be tombs, memo­ri­als or stand­ing stones. At times they con­strict the per­form­ers like prison walls. They’re clearly cen­tral to Shechter’s vi­sion, but their ap­pear­ance tends to sig­nal the points at which the piece loses shape and for­ward mo­men­tum.

Like many an au­teur chore­og­ra­pher, Shechter too of­ten stays his hand when he would be bet­ter ad­vised to cut, and cut deep. Grand Fi­nale is in two parts with an in­ter­val, and in both halves Shechter ig­nores nat­u­ral end points and lets the work me­an­der on so that its im­pact dis­si­pates. There’s too much rep­e­ti­tion, and too much trundling around of the set. This is a piece with many virtues, but it gives the im­pres­sion of hav­ing been ex­panded to fill a full-length pro­gram­ming slot, rather than edited to its most telling and dra­matic length. Cut to the bone, and per­haps to a sin­gle act, Grand Fi­nale could be Shechter’s defin­ing work. But it’s not there yet.

Pho­to­graph by Tris­tram Ken­ton

‘Men and women ca­per fren­ziedly as ex­tinc­tion draws ever closer’: Grande Fi­nale by Hofesh Shechter at Sadler’s Wells.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.