Hofesh Shechter: the agent provocateur of dance

From his intricate choreography to atmospheric soundtracks, Hofesh Shechter’s immersive productions are intended to unsettle and provoke. Clare Wiley meets the dancemaker

At the beginning of Hofesh Shechter’s new creation, Sun, an announcement is made. The choreographer’s disembodied voice coolly assures the audience: ‘We want you to enjoy the performance, so we’ll show you a little bit of the final scene so you know everything turns out alright in the end.’

Dancers then parade on stage in full costume, triumphant music blaring, and perform a five-second extract. It’s a neat gimmick that gets a few laughs, but largely serves to put the audience on edge.

Sun, when it begins in earnest, is fast-paced, furious and beautiful. The choreography varies from small, detailed movement to harmonised ensemble scenes. Some dancers seem to be praying, others imitate birds. Often they are a little out of sync, which is jarring.

Shechter's Sun © Gabriele Zucca
Shechter’s Sun © Gabriele Zucca

The costumes range from cotton rags to flowing silk, mimicking the appearance of a court jester. The score, which Shechter composed, is a bizarre blend of grand symphonic sounds and loud bagpipes. Snatches of ‘there may be trouble ahead’, in Sinatra’s inimitable purr, occasionally derail the soundtrack.

One performer cackles eccentrically, while another periodically screams at the top of her lungs. At regular intervals, the dancers enter carrying life-size cardboard cut-outs of sheep, wolves, and businessmen, complete with suits and mobile phones.

‘While there wasn’t an explicit agenda, there was a certain frustration that I was dealing with and was trying to bring to the stage’

Sun is a riotous, frenetic show where tension gradually builds. Yet despite the apparent chaos of it all, there seems to be a strong narrative: to me, the dancers embody a society that trusts implicitly, worships false idols and too readily mocks the mad or foolish. All in all, it’s a deeply unsettling and tense experience.

Sun © Gabriele Zucca
Sun © Gabriele Zucca

I speak to Shechter the morning after seeing the performance at The Lowry in Greater Manchester, still a little unnerved. Did he mean to have such an effect on his audience? ‘Totally,’ he says. ‘I think there’s something about Sun’s appearance…there’s a conflict between how it looks and how it feels. Visually Sun is beautiful, and lulls you to believe it will be a very pleasant experience, but it’s not really. There’s something very unsettling, something dark and quite irritating. It’s a dangerous line I was walking there, I know.’

And while I saw a production that had an almost overtly political message, Shechter insists he didn’t have a specific narrative or agenda for Sun. ‘There were some things which are extremely obvious on stage, but mostly I let the audience join the dots. I actually think there was a lot of space for interpretation, more so than in my other work. Some audience members said they completely got a message, and others asked if there was a message. Each person had their own experience, based on their own knowledge, sensitivity, and mood.’

‘But I would say that while there wasn’t an explicit agenda, there was a certain frustration that I was dealing with and was trying to bring to the stage,’ Shechter adds. ‘Perhaps this frustration is something people can feel, whether they understand exactly where it comes from or not… maybe it doesn’t matter.’

Israeli-born Shechter moved to the UK in 2002, and made his choreographic debut the following year. Over the next few years he created a string of idiosyncratic works, including major commissions from London venues The Place, Southbank Centre and Sadler’s Wells. In 2008 he founded the Hofesh Shechter Company, which is based in Brighton.

It was Shechter’s 2010 work Political Mother that placed him firmly on the international map, earning praise for its emotive complexity, intricate choreography and cinematic original score.

Political Mother © Gabriele Zucca
Political Mother © Gabriele Zucca

‘My choreographic process begins with understanding what kind of place I’m at in my own life,’ he says. ‘It feels more fruitful to use what’s happening inside me as the matter I create with. For each piece I try to find a world, and a set of rules, that give it its feeling.’

For Sun, that world was one in which surface beauty belies something darker and disturbing underneath. And for Political Mother, it was a ‘world of people who are trying to satisfy the audience’. ‘There was something slightly servant-like in the movement, they were trying to entertain…almost like a forced celebration.’

While the theatrical worlds Shechter concocts are each quite different, all his choreography begins from a particular emotion or sensation, and this is perhaps why critics often describe his work as ‘raw’. ‘If you create [dance] connected to a certain emotion, then that’s the first thing that will come back to the audience when they see it,’ Shechter says. ‘There is something very direct about it, it’s like from the stomach to the stomach, or from the heart to the heart.’

It’s clear that Shechter means his dance to be thought provoking, whatever guise the costumes, music and movement take in each piece. In conversation, he’s certainly contemplative; our discussion takes in everything from poetry and film to a reflection on how Shechter’s body of work might be progressing.

Dancers in the Hofesh Shechter Company are equally introspective; it’s a quality that the choreographer watches for in auditions. ‘In fact, I look for two things,’ he says. ‘One is an acute human quality, that they’re able to connect to their emotions. It’s something that’s apparent in their eyes, something that’s fragile and emotional.’

‘The other thing I look for is a physical quality of flow,’ Shechter continues, ‘a kind of movement that is continuous. A lot of dancers think in images: they do one shape, then another shape, then another. That’s not interesting for me, because it’s not movement. It’s posing.’

Shechter in rehearsal © Heather Judge
Shechter in rehearsal © Heather Judge

Shechter’s own path to dance began at school in Jerusalem, where folk dancing was compulsory. From there it was a short journey to a folk group and on to Batsheva Dance Company, Tel Aviv’s famed contemporary troupe.

‘I think the attraction was always something about the challenge,’ he says. ‘Sometimes I didn’t feel extremely comfortable [dancing] and I felt there was a way for me to learn from that, to open up and improve. There was also the sociable aspect of dance, which I loved. It was something I did with people, working with people in the room. That in itself could be difficult, but at the same time, it was attractive.’

These days Shechter’s dance seems to have a particular appeal for teenagers – indeed there were plenty of young fans at The Lowry’s staging of Sun. ‘It’s not that we started the company with a specific mission to bring dance to young people, but it’s happened that a lot of young people are very enthusiastic about the work, which I love,’ he says. ‘They’re the audience of the future, and we’re shaping their tastes and their thirst for quality and excitement in dance.’

‘It’s not about creating an obvious theme, a thing that is lectured to people, but rather a sensation, a sense of how these artists are seeing the world’

Last year the company performed Political Mother in Northern Ireland as part of Derry-Londonderry’s UK City of Culture programme, and staged several complementary workshops and education projects. In the coming months, Shechter will develop a project with East London Dance, in an effort to build long-term relationships with young dancers and audiences.

This summer, the choreographer will bring his singular vision and talent for vivid storytelling to the Brighton Festival as guest director – a role previously held by Brian Eno, Vanessa Redgrave and Aung San Suu Kyi. ‘To be extremely honest, the first reason I wanted to take on the directorship was selfish,’ Shechter laughs. ‘I have performed at the festival for years, and never had time to actually see any of the shows. This way I get to just be there for a whole month.’

‘It also seemed to be a really fun thing to do,’ he continues. ‘I’ll be able to form an experience for audiences that goes beyond my usual one-hour performance. I will encourage the audience to connect the dots over the course of all the shows they see. It’s not about creating an obvious theme, a thing that is lectured to people, but rather a sensation, a sense of how these artists are seeing the world.’

The festival runs from 3-25 May and includes the UK premiere of Opus No 7 from Russian theatre director Dmitry Krymov; William Forsythe’s Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time No 2; and The British Library, a new work by British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare.