Hofesh Shechter: ‘It may work and it may not. But it will always be a surprise’
There can’t be many choreographers whose name inspires an entire festival of work. In fact, there aren’t any. With one honourable exception: Hofesh Shechter, who is flavour of the month with no fewer than four different productions in various venues across London and all under the banner Hofest.
Shechter seems to adhere to the doctrine ‘diversify and rule’. Thus, there is his latest trilogy, Barbarians, at Sadler’s Wells, his youth company’s deGeneration at East London Dance in Stratford Circus, his debut as a director with Orphee et Eurydice at the Royal Opera House alongside co-director John Fulljames, and the concluding Political Mother: The Choreographer’s Cut – at the O2 Academy, Brixton.
So just how did this 41-year-old Israeli rock drummer-turned-choreographer rise from his roots to alternately destabilise and collaborate with the UK dance establishment on such a flamboyant scale? And was Hofest planned or just a series of coincidences that were sitting around waiting to be exploited?
“It happened organically,” says Shechter, when we meet at the Royal Opera House, where he has taken time out from co-directing and choreographing Orphee et Eurydice.
“The moment I decided I wanted to do the opera with my own dancers I realised that I couldn’t go out on tour. So I suggested a little season instead. And having got that far I thought we should finish with a big bang.”
The big bang theory came to fruition with the scheduling of his dance epic Political Mother: The Choreographer’s Cut at The O2 Academy. The detonations will probably be heard in Westminster.
Like it or not, Shechter has kicked down the doors that separated contemporary dance from rock’n’ roll and galvanised an entirely new generation into engaging with dance.
The deployment of battalions of drummers and electric guitarists plus the tribal ensemble dancing is designed to bypass the head and go straight into the entrails. You don’t just watch a Hofesh Shechter show, you experience it with every fibre of your being. It is – in the truest meaning – sensational. And like many great artists, Shechter is the first to admit that he is stumbling around in the dark, ready to risk making a fool of himself in order to experiment with the form. Elastic as it is – and only Michael Clark comes close in allying contemporary rock music and dance movement, albeit with an entirely different vocabulary – dance is capable of taking on board myriad alternative art forms. This, for Shechter, is what makes it endlessly fascinating.
Born in 1975 in Jerusalem, Shechter learned folk dancing at 12 and continued to broaden his horizons when entering the Jerusalem Academy of Dance and Music in his teens. While there, he received his call-up papers for the Israeli army at 18 and served a year instead of the statutory three.
He started as a dancer with the Batsheva Dance Company, where he created works for Ohad Naharin and Wim Vandekeybus, among others, while also studying percussion. He later moved to Paris where he played drums in a rock group, the Human Beings, while studying music. In 2002 he moved to London to perform with the Jasmin Vardimon Company and in 2003 created his first dance work, Fragments, for which he also composed the music. Since then, Shechter has composed the music for almost all his works, including 2004’s Cult, Uprising (2006) and In Your Rooms (2007) and his first all-female piece, The Art of Not Looking Back (2009).
In 2008 he choreographed the dance sequence that opened the second series of Channel 4’s Skins, which raised his street cred among sharp-eyed teenagers. He formed the Hofesh Shechter Dance Company the same year. Aside from his current works, he is adapting Jerome Robbins’ choreography for the fifth Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof, which is scheduled to begin performances in November.
All this and he is the father of two small daughters, one-year-old Coco and three-year-old Snow. How much time does he get to spend with them?
“I see as much of them as I can,” he says. “It’s not so bad, relatively, as all this is happening in London so I am not touring all over the world. Coco walked for the first time yesterday.”
After a year of almost non-stop activity that includes running two companies – the Hofesh Shechter Company and Shechter Junior for 18-25 year-olds – he hopes to take a break in 2016, in spite of working on a new commission for Nederlands Dans Theater. Clearly, music and dance have been his life since a very early age, though he talks wistfully of his fantasy career – the career that never was.
“I had a huge love of tennis but didn’t have the right family or resources to pursue it. I think I would have been a very interesting tennis player. I have the build and the stamina and the right attitude for it.”
It is not hard to picture him as a world-class tennis player. He is lean and athletic and has a quiet intensity that barely covers an indomitable and competitive will. Driven by a seemingly unstoppable need to explore his innermost feelings through dance, Shechter creates works with the intensity of a human flamethrower.
He challenges himself as much as his audience, substituting Baroque music for his customary rock in Untouchable – his first commission for the Royal Ballet – and delivering a rare duet in the third part of the Barbarians trilogy, handily entitled Two Completely Different Angles of the Same Fucking Thing.
He favours brutalist ensembles over fastidious solos and duets and exposes his heart and head by confessing to his deepest, ugliest feelings through voice-overs on stage. Like the heyday of 1970s underground theatre, attending a Hofesh Shechter gig (how easy it is to use that word) elicits the thrill of the unknown. You simply have no idea what is coming at you. Which is just the way he likes it. Is his legacy something he would like to see continued?
“Contemporary dance is an experimental art form and one of the beauties of it and one of its weaknesses is that you have absolute freedom,” he says. “I would hate the idea that this – my way, that is – is what it should be like. What I hope is that people will realise that it is an underground art form and that you have no idea what to expect. I hope the form continues to explore itself. This is what I am selling: you don’t know what’s coming. It may work and it may not. But it will always be a surprise.”
So far, so good. The sulphurous Political Mother with its deafening, thunderous score and epically violent content is the chalk to the cheese of the quirkily bizarre Sun with its highly coloured costumes and cut-out sheep. And in the making of the second piece in the Barbarians trilogy, The Bad, he pushed himself even further into uncharted territory.
“It was an attempt to try to make a piece without thinking, because I think a lot. We made it in Germany and I decided to do it all at night. When you work at night, it seems timeless. And then I thought: ‘What are the elements that I would never work with? Gold bodysuits!’ So that’s what we went for. It was the most amazing creative process I have been involved in. It respects nothing. All the time we exist in a place where you don’t know whether it’s serious or not. You just accept that what happens, happens. And that’s it. It’s an ‘anything goes’ piece.”
Ever reluctant to elucidate on the meaning or the sources of his works, Shechter is nonetheless aware that he is unpacking his cultural history and personal memories that might otherwise fester in the depths of his psyche.
It is evident in the mutated folk dancing of his youth in Israel, in the dance language of Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company as well as the politicised gymnastics of fellow Israeli Yasmin Vardimon’s company, both of whom have contributed to the evolution of his style.
And of all contemporary choreographers, the cinema exerts a prodigious hold on his imagination. The sudden blackouts, the shock cuts, the accelerated movement and transitions from scene to scene – all are derived from film editing techniques. He has often cited the films of Stanley Kubrick as a major influence, even if Kubrick’s magisterial perfectionism seems light years away from Shechter’s admittedly anarchic working methods. But it is the end result, not the means by which it is achieved, that they share – a mutual darkness veined with a sophisticated and dangerous wit, a peculiarly skewed way of looking at the world and their position in it. “Looking back,” he says with mild surprise, “I think I can see elements of Kubrick in all my work.”
Shechter is not averse to courting controversy above and beyond the stage. Earlier this year, he joined Lloyd Newson of DV8 and Akram Khan in deploring the condition of UK dance students, citing three contemporary dance schools as failing in their duty to maintain rigorous physical standards. It was deliberately provocative but even Shechter cannot have guessed at the furore that resulted in the dance community – with critics, teachers and students joining in the debate from one side or the other.
“I sometimes live in the way of the samurai,” says Shechter when I ask him if he had anticipated the reaction. “And sometimes I don’t realise what is going to happen. I am certainly at peace with saying what I said. I just wanted to get people’s awareness and it is very important to have the discussion. Of course, some schools were upset. But I have also had a good response from others, so we can put our heads together. It came up to the surface and it is important to keep it there.”
Subsequent interviews and articles suggested that the criticism – although specifically aimed at dance teaching – penetrated far deeper into the national psyche. The inference is that there is a problem of education in the UK that goes way beyond the dance curriculum and that British students simply do not work hard enough. Did he acknowledge that in what he said?
“I don’t know,” he says. “But other people have come to me and said it is a problem that is widespread in the UK. The trouble is that higher education is very expensive. And that is wrong. The culture we live in is that once you pay you expect service. It is a different mentality to a situation where everyone has access. The competitive element would be more open. A lot of it starts with the fact that higher education is beyond the reach of many people. In Germany, for example, it is free.”
Intriguingly, Shechter’s views – along with those of his confederates – have exposed the division between old school ‘hard work’ attitudes and new age ‘anything goes’ libertarianism. As an egalitarian anarchist, he bestrides both worlds rather uncomfortably. In much the same way, while he retains the mischievous spirit of artists such as Patti Smith, Tracey Emin and Antonin Artaud, here he is, rehearsing in the hallowed and oh-so-traditional precincts of the Royal Opera House with some of the best-trained dancers in the world. Is he a real anarchist or is he just a naughty kid in the body of a 40-year-old male? It is typical of this softly spoken, coolly intelligent man that he takes the question seriously.
“I think it is pretentious to call yourself an anarchist. I’m too nerdy, but I fight that tendency in me. Anarchy is associated with violence and breaking things. So maybe I am. There is something in that. A part of me loves the routine and a part of me loves rock’n’roll, and a big part of me is an eight-year-old boy trying to understand what the fuck is going on.”
As an enfant terrible, an outsider with an enormous fanbase, it is nonetheless surprising to find him working at the Royal Opera House. Has he got one foot in the Establishment or does he have a subversive masterplan that has yet to see the light?
“A big part of me doesn’t like the Establishment. But you are right, I have been invited into it and I accepted.” He pauses, gives me a long, hard look.
“But you know, Neil, the coolest people are the ones who wear suits and do something outrageous.”
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