An apocalypse that ends with a whimper: Ben Brooker on Hofesh Shechter’s Grand Finale
Since his 2007 breakthrough In Your Rooms, Israeli-born, London-based choreographer, dancer, and composer Hofesh Shechter has developed a reputation for dark, large-scale work marked by existentialist themes. Traumas both personal (his mother leaving his family when he was a child) and political (the Israel-Palestine conflict) inflected previous works The Art of Not Looking Back (2009) and Uprising (2006), while Sun (2013), journeying from idyll to nightmare, directed his customary antagonism at colonial usurpation.
But, really, this is too reductionist a reading of the choreographer’s oeuvre, which, more than anything, foregrounds human vulnerability and mortality against vast and imponderable forces. We might say of Shechter what Harold Hobson once said of Pinter: that he “has got hold of a primary fact of existence. We live on the verge of disaster”.
Grand Finale, first seen in Paris in 2017, takes the choreographer’s apocalyptic angst to fresh extremes. It begins with a single dancer, their back turned to us as if in prayer or reflecting on some unspeakable loss, silhouetted against one of the series of moveable black monoliths that forms Tom Scutt’s set (they reminded me of those alien black slabs from Stanley Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as well as the “stelae” that make up Peter Eisenman and Buro Happolds’ Holocaust Memorial in Berlin).
To the mournful strains of an onstage quintet, dressed in tailcoats like the Titanic musicians who kept playing while the famously ‘unsinkable’ ship went down, the dancer appears to drop dead. The stage is plunged, for the first of what will be many times, into darkness. Slowly, a group of dancers emerges from the gloom and dry ice, their hands raised in a gesture of submission or awe. Dressed in drab, loose-fitting shirts and slacks, they look like the shell-shocked survivors of some epochal event.
Seemingly flashing back to the calamity that preceded this moment, a party-like atmosphere is disrupted by a choreography of increasing dread and disorder. As an unsettling scraping quality is introduced into the score, blending with Shechter’s own recorded percussion and electronica; dancers fall lifeless into each other’s arms, are dragged by their hands and feet around the stage, and propped up and animated like puppets. It’s a scene of horror, but at times a blackly comic one: such as when dancers cavort with deadweight partners in a terrible danse macabre, the score – which makes much ironic use of cheery music by Franz Lehar, Tchaikovsky, and others – sliding into a waltz.
Shechter’s expansive use of the stage suggests a battlefield or perhaps public space after some atrocity but the monoliths, swept into prison- and wall-like configurations, also reduce the work down to a claustrophobic scale, the dancers cowed into an abject motionlessness (the walls of Trump’s America and the West Bank immediately come to mind). In one sequence, the dancers’ faces distend in silent, Munch-like screams. In another, they spectacularly find their voices, a soaring lament sung by a chorus of women that, for one exultant moment, cuts through the work’s overriding sense of doom.
All the while, Shechter’s varied, highly kinetic choreography grinds on, frenetic and martial, anchored in supple, outstretched upper bodies and low centres of gravity. Arms whirl, legs thrust and scissor. There is a manic quality to all this, the dancers always seemingly poised between extremes of defiance and surrender, elation and exhaustion. Similarly, the work itself seems to oscillate between states of chaos and order, its periodic dissolves freighted with a sense of erasure and renewal, a constant starting over from the ashes of the old. Tom Visser’s chiaroscuro lighting lends proceedings an elegiac splendour.
It’s a pity, then, that the focus Shechter effortlessly commands from his audience during Grand Finale’s exciting (if admittedly overlong) first half is squandered by a second that feels, for the most part, redundant. The changes register strongly enough, the dancers appearing in bright casual dress, their energy palpably freer and more exuberant than before, as though they have come to some new accommodation with their fate. But the work goes nowhere, content to repeat itself while drifting towards a conclusion that, while grasping for a more frailly human choreography of kissing, holding, and praying, isn’t quite able to translate its austere beauty into something more affecting.
I found myself growing ever-wearier, too, of Shechter’s original score, played with scant relief at punishingly loud volume. Like the auteur European directors with whom he bears some comparison – Romeo Castelluci, Milo Rau, Katie Mitchell and others – Shechter’s uncompromising vision carries within it the seeds of self-indulgence, and they are allowed to flourish here to the detriment of the work. A more disciplined first half and a thoroughly reconsidered second – or, better still, a condensing of both into a single hour or so – might ensure that this apocalypse, unlike T.S. Eliot’s, ends with a bang rather than a whimper.
Grand Finale, choreography and music by Hofesh Shechter. Set and costumes design by Tom Scutt, lighting designby Tom Visser, music Collaborators Nell Catchpole and Yaron Engler. Adelaide Festival Centre, Adelaide Festival. Closed.