Hofesh Shechter’s Dance Trilogy Bewilders and Delights

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Various composers, barbarians: Hofesh Shechter Company, Sadler’s Wells, London, 18.9.2015. (J.O’D)

Part I:

the barbarians in love

Dancers: Chien-Ming Chang, Frédéric Despierre, Yeji Kim, Merel Lammers, Attila Ronai, Diogo Sousa, Paula Alonso Gomez (understudy)

Choreography and Music: Hofesh Shechter

Lighting Collaborator: Lawrie McLennon

Voice: Victoria with Natascha McElhone

Additional Music: François Couperin, Les Concerts Royaux, 1722: Jordi Savall and Le Concert Des Nations (2004)

Part II:


Dancers: Maëva Berthelot, Sam Coren, Philip Hulford, Kim Kohlmann and Erlon Kruja

Choreography and Music: Hofesh Shechter with the dancers

Lighting Collaborator: Lawrie McLennan

Costume maker: Amanda Barrow

Additional Music: Mystikal, Pussy Crook: Tarantula (2001) Hesperion XX, Jordi Savall, Paavin of Albarti (Alberti): Elizabethan Consort Music 1558-1603 (1998)

Part III:

Two completely different angles of the same fucking thing

Dancers: Winifred Burnet-Smith, Bruno Guillore

Choreography and Music: Hofesh Shechter with the dancers

Lighting Collaborator: Lawrie McLennon

Music: Abdullar Ibrahim, Maraba Blue: Cape Town Flowers (1997) Hesperion XX, Jordi Savall, In Nomine V a 5 (White): Elizabethan Consort Music 1558-1603 (1998) Bredren and MC Swift, Control: Control (2014)

The first part of this trilogy, the barbarians in love, was previewed at Sadler’s Wells in February. At a time when Hofesh Shechter was working on a piece for dancers of The Royal Ballet, it contained snatches of baroque music and ballet-like poses. It also contained the recorded voice of Shechter himself saying ‘I cheated on my wife’ as the dancers stood silently listening.

‘In the new version,’ the choreographer explains to the dance critic Neil Norman in an interview published in the programme, ‘I cut it at the point when the confession is about to start…It is now cryptic enough that no-one will make sense of it.’ If the blank expressions of the people coming out at the interval were anything to go by, Shechter is right. Only someone who had seen the preview could make sense of it.

The baroque music, the ballet-like steps and poses are still there. So is the woman’s voice saying ‘This is your first lesson’ and ‘Order must be…’ and ‘Everything comes to an end’. So is Shechter’s saying, ‘I wonder if there’s a shrink in the house.’ Some choreographed shafts of light have been added. But without the confession (true or not), without the duet between a male and female dancer that followed, this part of the piece now seems to lack a core. The final nakedness of its six dancers as they stand at the front of the stage in red light, black shadow and haze, so forceful in February when not even all of them were completely naked, happens too quickly and has no point.

The second and third parts of what Neil Norman tells us ‘was conceived as a trilogy, but a disjointed one’ show a return to the form of Shechter’s Political Mother (2010) and Sun (2014). At the start of tHE bAD , five different dancers move forward out of darkness. They seem to be naked, too, until you realise they are wearing bodysuits of pale gold with a waxy sheen. The bodysuits are something new for Shechter, whose dancers usually wear looser, baggier clothing. The movement, to the choreographer’s own, loud, percussive music, involves the company’s trademark bowed shoulders, jigging legs, flying dreadlocks and waving arms. It creates an energy that extends beyond the proscenium arch.

According to Shechter, this is an “ ‘anything goes’ piece”. Lit from the side by vertically arranged spotlights, like the dancers of Political Mother and Sun, the three men and two women stop jigging now and then to writhe on the floor, tussle, link hands and skip in a circle (turning their heads as they do so to fix the audience with a challenging stare). One of them (Philip Hulford) also engages in banter, perhaps staged, with someone in the stalls. Staged or unstaged, he does it well. Before this section ends, several people are standing up to applaud.

They have to sit down again as two, very differently dressed dancers appear for the third section, Two completely different angles of the same fucking thing. The woman (Winifred Burnet-Smith) wears slacks and a silky blouse, the man (Bruno Guillore) something like lederhosen and a hat to match. On different sides of the stage, they begin an ironic, shuffling, almost-but-not-quite ‘social’ dance to cocktail hour music with arms held out at waist height from their bodies.

‘Why did you do it, Dad?’ asks the voice that is Shechter’s as the dancers move closer to perform a duet like the one that was missing from the first section. We have to imagine what ‘it’ is. From the way the woman climbs on to the man’s back as if to weigh him down, from the way his fists beat weakly against her, we assume it was something bad.

The dancers from the first section return, in the white costumes they wore before they were naked, to observe this uneasy coupling. So do those from the second. Testimony to Hofesh Shechter’s sense of theatre, they form an impassive semi-circle of alternating white and gold. Gradually, they close in. When they move apart the man is wearing only his underpants. The piece ends with all the dancers arranged in a phalanx, ironically shuffling back and forth to the cocktail hour music.

‘Ça t’a plu?’ a young, French woman asked her friend on the way out. From her voice, she knew what the answer would be. ‘Oui,’ the friend (another young, French woman) replied enthusiastically and without hesitation. ‘La deuxième partie.’

barbarians is part of #Hofest, a four-week event starting officially on 20 September and showcasing the work of the Hofesh Shechter Company in four London venues: Sadler’s Wells; the Royal Opera House; the 02 Academy Brixton; and Stratford Circus.

John O’Dwyer

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