In a gorilla suit, one choreographer looks much like another, don’t you think? But Israel-born Hofesh Shechter, who appeared as a gorilla with a voice of doom in his early piece Cult, turned out to be one of the most distinctive dance-makers around. And looking back, you wonder if maybe that gorilla was key.
Cult was made for the Place Prize for Dance in 2004, where it won the audience award. The short, sharp piece featured six nattily dressed dancers, the women in sleek red cocktail dresses, the men in dapper suits. To a murky, multi-layered soundtrack of drones and pulses, they slashed and rolled, flicked wrists and juddered chests, writhed as if out of control and yet kept in synch as if in total command. And the gorilla? The gorilla just sat on a chair at the back, impassive, inscrutable, like a primal deity, both beast and god. The gorilla creeped you out a bit.
you had to wonder whether inside the choreographer there might live some kind of … gorilla?
Doubtless, the dance style was one of the work’s big attractions. There was a bruising buzz to its dynamics, an off-the-cuff virtuosity to the way the dancers mixed casual actions – wriggling, running, bopping – with daring dives and spins. But what got under your skin was something else: glimpses of a bigger picture in which humans – dancers, people, us – were just one part of a grander scheme, like notes within a larger music that also resounded with the beats of gods, animals and demons. And if that choreography came from inside Shechter, you had to wonder whether inside the choreographer there might live some kind of … gorilla?
“Everything I’ve experienced,” said Shechter in a 2009 interview with Guardian critic Judith Mackrell, “has left a mark on my work, and a lot of that experience has been about conflict, about struggling to make sense of things.” Born in Jerusalem in 1975, Hofesh Shechter was raised by his father after his mother left the family when he was two, leaving an emotional void that partly powered his 2009 piece The Art of Not Looking Back. At six, he began studying the piano, and later joined a youth folk-dance group (the rhythms and formations of folk dance still inform his work). At 15 he entered a performing arts academy as a pianist, but switched to dance. And then came statutory military service, a complete change of system that came as a complete shock to his system. “Suddenly,” he said, “I was put into an institution that was the complete opposite of democratic, where we were running and doing shooting practice all day, and we didn’t even get to decide when to go to the toilet. It felt like an electrical short circuit in my brain.” You can hear echoes of that blown fuse in his choreography, in which questions of freedom, order and conflict remain recurrent concerns.
In a way, dance saved him. He was moved from active training to clerical duty to undertake an apprenticeship with Israel’s leading contemporary dance compay, Batsheva, which he then joined. But he was still restless, and missed his music. He went to France to study music and played percussion in a rock group called the Human Beings. After an interval back in Tel Aviv, he returned to Europe in 2002, this time to London, where he soon went from playing drums to performing as a dancer with fellow Israeli Jasmin Vardimon. He made his first choreography, Fragments in 2003, which earned him the position of associate choreographer at The Place Theatre in London.
dancers caught in the cross-currents between their drives and their destinies, herding together, aping each other, fighting for themselves
Cult was followed by Uprising in 2006, remarkably assured male septet, with music again by Shechter. The men ran ragged around the stage with aeroplane arms, or tumbled headlong like marauding guerillas with long, gibbon-armed swings or combat-course shuffles; and it ended with an image of mutiny. The army was in that piece. So were our animal natures, and the power of the group. There was a sense of dancers caught in the cross-currents between their drives and their destinies, herding together, aping each other, fighting for themselves.
Punchy, fierce and very un-British, Uprising lit the touchpaper on Shechter’s career. The direct result was a unique collaboration between three London venues, who co-commissioned his next piece In Your Rooms and agreed to present it in a double bill with Uprising first at the 300-seat Place Theatre, then at the 900-seat Queen Elizabeth Hall and finally at the 1500-seat Sadler’s Wells, all within the course of six months, with Shechter enlarging and adapting the works each time. This rocket-fast rise to the top was itself topped in 2009, when Shechter presented the same double bill on an even larger scale at The Roundhouse, more of a gig venue than a theatre. There was also a grandstanding, rock-gig feel to Shechter’s Political Mother (2010), which likewise came back in a bigged-up version called The Choreographer’s Cut in 2012, the dancers backed by banks of musicians with Shechter himself at the top, thrashing and screeching like some crazed air-guitar god.
Shechter at the top, thrashing and screeching like some crazed air-guitar god
Alongside working with his own company, Shechter has worked on a range of other commissions, including for UK dance companies Bare Bones, Candoco, Scottish Dance Theatre and StopGAP, and for international companies in Portugal, Greece, Switzerland, Sweden and the USA. In addition, he’s contributed choreography for theatre productions at the Royal Court and National Theatres, music and movement for Antony Gormley’s performance art event Survivor, a TV sequence for Channel 4’s cult teen series Skins. Soon, he’ll be working on an opera at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, and soon after that he will be acting as guest director for the Brighton Festival.
That’s an eclectic mix – but Shechter always brings something distinctively his own. What is that makes him so recognisable? Well, he often makes his own music – dense, murky soundscapes that throb with energy. Then there’s his dance style, with its wolfish lopes, feral crouches, reptilian slithers, its primal force. The beast in us is always there. But look at Shechter’s groupings, and you’ll see that along with the animal, there is always the social animal, whether flocking sheeplike, marauding in packs, or trained into drilled formations. Perhaps the key to Shechter is not one particular thing or another, but the dissonance between animal, human, society and deity, the struggles between power, instinct and will. In Shechter’s world, we humans are great apes, grand ones, even. And you can read that as you will.