Dissolving into Chaos
Hofesh Shechter Company | Grand Finale
BAM Next Wave Festival | Nov 9 – 11, 2017
Hofesh Shechter's Grand Finale opens with a burst of energy, yet the intensity remains curiously level for a dance that seems to be about end times. Shechter has consistently used his dream-like contemporary choreography to investigate the cultural and behavioral fault lines around affiliation, belonging, rejection and isolation. With past works bearing titles like Uprising, Political Mother, and Survior, it's not hard to imagine which themes interest him.
The material comes as no surprise, considering Shechter's biography. An Israeli, his early training was in folk dance and music (Shechter continues to compose his own scores for his choreography), and he later performed with the Batsheva Ensemble, as well as with the main company. Despite a life rooted in the Israeli dance community, Shechter eventually left for London. He has been quoted as saying he was happy to leave a dance scene that felt too small and intense. His time there afforded quick notice by major presenting organizations, namely Sadler's Wells, which commissioned In your rooms in the early 2000s. Shechter soon became one to watch in the UK and abroad, and has gone on to create for the Royal Ballet and Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway.
Along with some electronic sound and fragments of existing compositions, the musicians in Grand Finale perform onstage with the dancers. They continue to reposition themselves throughout the evening, even playing in front of the curtain during intermission. At first, though, they're mostly hidden in darkness and the audience can just glimpse the movement of a hand or a bow. Later, they appear upstage, with the dancers surrounding them as if in a pub. The integration of the musical performers helps clarify the unraveling world that Shechter presents. All the performers are in it together, though the musicians seem to be in better spirits, rousing the audience to sing along during their intermission performance.
Tom Scutt's monumental moving walls and Tom Visser's grim lighting further enhance Shechter's world of threat and shadows. Beams pierce the air, evoking searchlights—but it's unclear whether they're illuminating survivors or escapees. A huge light, hung high above the stage, casts an arc over the first few rows of the audience and silhouettes the dancers. In color and quality, it resembles both an interrogation light and a dying sun. Grand Finale might be the entire planet's last stand. Despite the elaborate design, the movement remains in a smoky twilight. It's hard to believe Shechter is indifferent to what the audience can or can't see. Perhaps he's more interested in allowing viewers to fill in the gaps themselves.
Shechter's choreography is almost categorically described by critics as gritty, but it's something else: a choreography of the polis. That is, dance interested in the internal and external forces that hold a community together or tear it apart. An unraveling nation or a tribe in upheaval will certainly bring its share of ruin to the stage. To call something “gritty” simply because it has no visible relationship to Western classicism is insulting. Shechter draws heavily on his folk dance training, gesture and pedestrian movement to craft a roiling vocabulary, and the visual qualities of his compositions are striking. Grand Finale is no different, but it menaces for too long and offers glimpses of resilience and redemption too late. Physical collapse and bodies dragged like corpses appear again and again, peppered throughout with gestures of entreaty or surrender. The raw energy that Shechter requires from his dancers is far more impressive than any technical feats he designs for them, and generally more interesting. The dancers move seamlessly from the ground to the air, from solo to complex partnering. A major shift occurs when the scenes of street battles and public life resolve into a party. The walls maneuver to create a narrow chamber with high walls, which might be deep underground or a hallway in a huge warehouse. The energy becomes trance-like and psychedelic, as the dancers dart back and forth across the narrow space. They move with abandon, but it's unclear if they are celebrating or possessed.
Later, the walls again form a small chamber and the dancers shift among different tableaux. A couple stands and kisses while others sit and watch—they could be getting married or saying goodbye forever. A man kneels, facing the wall. He might be praying, or awaiting execution. Throughout the evening, Shechter uses both movement and lighting to conjure emotional multiplicity, and the tableaux crystallize this vision right at the end. The poignancy feels hollow, though, after being bombarded with so much aggressive energy. The polis has room for tenderness too, even during its disintegration. Shechter's work would benefit from finding those moments sooner.
One scene, besides the underground party and the ending tableaux, stands out in particular. The women, as fiercely physical as the company’s men, dissolve into lifeless rag dolls. The image, considering the ongoing public allegations of sexual misconduct by men, against women, strikes a sour note. There is much same-sex partnering throughout the evening, but this scene features clear lighting and distinct partners. The women are rocked gently, or dragged and flipped, by the men. Perhaps Shechter was attempting to comment on the violence that women's bodies bear in conflict zones, or to invert the image of a man’s body shipped home from war. Regardless, this disappointing partnering trope occupies far too much airtime in a dance that could have benefited from the sensitivity of visible, mutual partnering, guiding the audience into a more emotionally diverse world.