Published in French translation.
In 2010, choreographer Hofesh Shechter appeared at a very particular apex: on top of a multi-storey set arrayed with classical musicians on level 1, a rock band on level 2, and Shechter himself at the summit, shrieking and thrashing compulsively, far above the massed dancers gathering and scattering at ground level. Part heavy-metal guitar hero, part rabble-rousing demagogue, the figure he cut was as disturbing and as it was exhilarating: simultaneously a rebellious rocker and a megalomaniac dictator. The crowd went wild.
The piece was Political Mother, and it marked the completion of Shechter’s ascent from unknown newcomer to acclaimed icon both in popularity (the piece went on to be performed in bigger, rock-concert arenas) and in style: it was perhaps the fullest realisation of the signature style for which Shechter had become known.
First, there was the rock music – sometimes, just amplified noise – composed and often played by Shechter himself, who had studied music long before he came to dance. Born in Jerusalem in 1975, he had begun learning the piano at six, and after the obligatory Israeli military service, he went to France to study music, where he also played percussion in rock band called The Human Beings. Indeed, when he later arrived in London it was as a drummer, not a dancer. You can hear the tension between classical music and rock music (or loud noise) in many of his works, where the different modes are deliberately pitted against each other: blares and blasts interrupting baroque music in Sun (2013), the finely crafted orchestrations of Tchaikovsky and Léhar battling against electronic howls in Grand Finale (2017). Effective it certainly is: no one can fail to notice such audible clashes. But it is not only for effect: it is also in keeping with the dissonance between rebellion and conformity that so often fascinates him, the hierarchies of power and status (so literally displayed in the multi-level set of Political Mother) that seem to tug at his imagination.
Such discord also appears within Shechter’s choreographic material, particularly in his groupwork. Again, Political Mother encapsulates the web of contradictions at play. The dancers at ground level seem driven by forces wider, higher or deeper than any single one of them. They represent not individual agents with their own free will, but crowds that herd and shatter, masses shaped by idolatry or driven by animal instincts.
There are echoes of Shechter’s army training in this vision. In an interview with the Guardian newspaper in 2009, he spoke of the shock to the system that military service delivered. Having grown up in a liberal environment, he recalled, “suddenly 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.”
The aftershock of that blown fuse made its mark in many pieces leading up to Political Mother. In Uprising (2006), for example, seven men ran ragged around the stage with aeroplane arms, dive-bombing each other or tumbling headlong like marauding guerrillas. They crouched and loped across the floor with long, gibbon-armed swings, they shuffled over it as if on a combat course. The work ended with an image of mutiny – a popular revolution, yes, but also a masculine, militarist one. The men seemed to be caught in the cross-currents between their drives and their destinies, herding together, aping each other, or fighting among themselves. The army was certainly in that piece. So were our animal natures, and the mutable power of the group, where brotherly camaraderie shades imperceptibly into soldierly comradeship, and collective action into oppressive coercion.
Just as the image of Shechter as dictator/rebel/saviour in Political Mother was as disturbing as it was gripping, so these choreographic enactments of the machinations of crowds and power felt – like the violence in an action movie – simultaneously horrific and thrilling. Shechter doesn’t provide us with a moral compass to navigate such terrain; indeed, he seems to dramatise rather than illuminate the ambivalence. And he does that through movement that, though sometimes stuck in repetitiveness, is nevertheless always distinctive and often compelling: wolfish lopes, defensive runs and fugitive tumbles, with group formations that swarm and scatter as readily as mobs, as forceful and fragile as society itself.
Yet the belligerent barbarism that you sometimes see in Shechter is close to another recurrent element: folk dance. Shechter attended folk dance classes as a child, and its patterns – rhythmic steps, weaving lines, turn-taking – often crop up in his choreography. And again, the tribalism that folk dance engenders can be simultaneously communal and exclusionary, festive and warlike. Political Mother, indeed, even ended with the phrase: “Where there is pressure there is … folk dance.”
Make of those words what you will, they clearly meant something to Shechter. And it brings us to another element of the Shechter style: his own voice. Usually cryptic, often dissimulated, sometimes ironic, Shechter’s voice recurs in many of his pieces. In The Art of Not Looking Back (2009), he was uncharacteristically explicit. “My mother left me when I was two”, he says at the beginning, and the work that follows is not only an all-female riposte to his all-male Uprising from three years earlier, but also a shuddering amplification of pain, loss and pathos.
With all these elements, Shechter’s choreographic voice gained its grain: in its military manoeuvres, its folky steps, its societal forces and its animal drives, its uncomfortable dissonances and its savage thrills. That choreographic voice hit a particularly loud and focused note in Political Mother. Since then, Shechter appears to have been exploring more diffuse registers – experimenting with greater variety, more introspection, and a less singular focus.
In Sun (2013), Shechter lit the stage white, and had his performers – for a while at least – playing courtly, commedia dell’arte roles of pierrot and jester, all mannered gesture and exaggerated politesse. In his Barbarians trilogy (2015–2016), he overlaid thumpingly aggressive group choreography with a voiceover of a counselling session conducted between a fictionalised version of himself and a robotic female therapist. The work finished with a married-couple duet, the husband in explicable lederhosen shorts. Sometimes the connection between what goes on inside Shechter’s head and what goes on outside it is tenuous. But it’s that very place of ambiguity and possibility that he seems to be inhabiting right now – simultaneously looking around and outwards at different forms and modes of expression, and inwards at the angels and demons within him.