Hofesh Shechter hit the big time some years ago through a combination of raw talent, distinctive style and dance industry backing. Uprising (2006) earned acclaim for its marshalling of anarchic energies, while Political Mother (2010) – as viscerally thrilling as it was disturbingly megalomaniac – won fans for its primal force and stadium-sized ambitions. Compared with these highs, his Barbarians trilogy – staged as part of #HOFEST, a season of Shechter’s work at various London venues – feels like both a retreat and a struggle.
The opening, The Barbarians in Love, cuts formal poses into ragged bopping, like images of courtiers beamed into a dancehall. The music mixes François Couperin with Shechter’s own beat-based electronica, while the roving lights, smoky air and spacey white costumes suggest sci-fi. It’s effective – but it is all effect. Where is it going?
A fuzzy female voice offers clues. “I am you,” she intones. “You are me. You are not alone.” Like drilled army recruits, the dancers bark back: “We! Are! Not! Alone!” True, but they are interchangeable, alienated units in a group. In any case, they become sidelined by a conversation between the voice – “Why did you do it, Hofesh?” – and Shechter’s own voice, explaining that he was just making a dance about innocence, urges and love being complicated.
The dancers impress. The scenes pile up. The work goes nowhere.
If The Barbarians in Love ends inside Shechter’s head, tHE bAD (read the capitals) seems to stay there. Instead of six dancers in white, here are five in gold. There are courtly poses, there are ragged raves, filmic lights, sonic layers of baroque and bass. But this headspace is an echo chamber, a montage in which any development – a merry-go-round skip, a handclapping session, a rant about being high – is no sooner started than abandoned. The dancers impress. The scenes pile up. The work goes nowhere.
Two Completely Different Angles of the Same Fucking Thing – the title of the third piece, but not a bad description of the first two – redeems the evening. A duet between Bruno Guillore (inexplicably, in lederhosen) and Winifred Burnet-Smith, it embraces a wider musical and dynamic variety and delves into a more personal, metaphoric space: gentle turns, clinging embraces, cold shoulders, face-offs. Shechter’s voiceover harks back to the first piece, the white and gold dancers return as a chorus and the close feels like a hard-won breakthrough that finally gives a point to the preceding works.