‘It feels as urgent as his work ever has, but the complexities have deepened profoundly. Unmissable.” Alison Croggon on Hofesh Schechter’s Grand Finale at the Melbourne Festival
Always beneath the skin, the nightmare: the ecstatic death trance that holds us all in its thrall. No choreographer taps into the contemporary zeitgeist like Hofesh Schechter.
He’s the choreographer, par excellence, of the trauma of militarised nationalism, which began when the Napoleonic Wars transformed Europe, redrawing its borders and signalling the inexorable dominance of the British Empire. We’re living in the endgame of this era: the seismic effects of those devastating wars and colonial invasions still shape our global and cultural politics, from Napoleon’s pillaging of Egypt and Syria in 1798 to the 1948 British Partition of Palestine.
At the interval of Grand Finale, now at the State Theatre for the Melbourne Festival, a five-person band comes before the curtain to play Russian Tune by the Jewish composer Vladimir Zaldwich, a lively dance tune rendered with strings and, for a short passage, a kazoo. There were – most unusually for the formal environs of the State Theatre – people dancing in their seats. But on the other side of the stage, a male body is lying in an attitude of death. Next to him, propped on a chair, is a cardboard sign on which is written KARMA.
There is, Schechter seems to be saying, no escape from these violent legacies. Schechter is Israeli-born – as a young pianist he was accepted into the Jerusalem Academy for Dance and Music, and when he graduated was a junior dancer in Tel Aviv for Batsheva Dance Company. He has lived in London since 2002, but all his work is profoundly shaped by his background. Israel is, after all, the youngest of the European colonial states, and the brutality that burns at the founding of nations isn’t yet obscured there, as it is here, by the mythos of nationalism.
Much of Grande Finale feels like a bruising reprise of his earlier work. There are Schechter’s signature motifs, familiar from Political Mother or Sun: the punishing electronic percussion that drives the dance, written by Schechter himself; the chorus work, stemming from folk dance (a motif itself of nationalism), that transforms in a trice from joyous to threatening; the sheerly exhilarating stage dynamic; the constant presence of death. But it doesn’t feel stale: there’s always a thrilling sense of thought questing through these bodies, an intelligence moving profoundly through the movement.
The dance is sculpted out of darkness. In Tom Visser’s brilliant lighting design, volumes of space open and contract, or bodies emerge out of smoky shadows. It seems to be taking place in a war zone in narrow alleys or desolate spaces, given articulation by the mobile black walls (Tom Scutt), which sometimes dance eerily by themselves, silently sweeping across the stage, blank and ominous and strangely monstrous.
But the focus is always on the dancers. They’re a bunch of various bodies, men and women of many races, who move with a terrifying choral accuracy: at one moment in a state of apocalyptic ecstasy, as if in some infernal nightclub, and then in the next in machine-like lockstep. The tension between the individual and the collective shifts constantly, from elated togetherness to menace, from joyous solitude to loneliness.
And, as always in Schechter, there is death. In one transfixing and disturbing sequence, four men emerge, carrying the limp dead weight of four women. They drag them around the stage, prop them up in a ghastly mimicry of life, dance with them in their arms, until the women slump to the floor: and then they continue dancing, their arms still in the empty shape of holding.
It heightens how militarised bodies are always hyper-masculinised, how the feminine must be determined as other and then sacrificed. The play of gender is always interesting in Schechter’s dance, since it often oscillates between binaries only to erase them, but in Grand Finale it seems more articulated and urgent.
The women rise from the floor and dance with the men, but they seem unliving, ghosts in dead bodies. In fact, there’s a strong sense of zombie apocalypse in several sequences. In another, the dancers’ mouths are wide open in a rictus of astonishment or fear, which becomes increasingly unsettling the longer it continues.
The force that most vivifies Schechter’s stage is, however, a dramatic sense of contrast. The darkness always plays against light, the militarised aggression flows into moments of corporeal vulnerability and tenderness. The band is on stage with the dancers, emerging out of soft light, playing Tchaikovsky string quartets or the naggingly familiar strains of Franz Lehár’s Merry Widow Waltz. There are moments of stillness, even silence. And increasing sadness that becomes the most animating emotion, especially in the second half.
After interval the contrasts become even more electric, and moves into a more literal – although, informed by what has gone before, equally poetic – space. The dance flashes violently between its extreme states: we glimpse a man and a woman kissing while others watch, as if witnessing a miracle; a small group of people slump against a wall, one unconscious or dead, their head on their friend’s shoulder. Finally we are left with a group of people standing with their back to us, illuminated in a small room – a prison perhaps, or perhaps the anteroom to another reality – staring ahead in silence. They are waiting for something. We can’t tell whether they wait in hope or despair.
This might be my most favourite of the works I’ve seen of Schechter’s: it feels as urgent as his work ever has, but the complexities have deepened profoundly. Unmissable.
Further reading: Ben Brooker on Grand Finale at the Adelaide Festival
Grand Finale, choreography and music by Hofesh Shechter. Set and costumes by Tom Scutt, lighting design by Tom Visser, music collaborators Nell Catchpole and Yaron Engler. Musicians: James Adams, Christopher Allan, Rebekah Allan, Desmond Neysmith and Alex Paton. Dancers: Robinson Cassarino, Chien-Ming Chang, Spencer Dickhaus, Emma Farnell-Watson, Natalia Gabrielczyk, Adam Khazhmuradov, Yeji Kim, Diogo Sousa, Juliette Valerio and Zunnur Zhafirah. Hofesh Schechter Company at the State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne, for Melbourne International Arts Festival. Until October 13. Bookings
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