The crouching tiger: How Israeli Hofesh Shechter became the biggest beast in British choreography
And, as he tells Allen Robertson, the audiences just keep growing...
Sunday 16 May 2010
Bouncing off the walls inside my own head" – that's how Hofesh Shechter, one of our sharpest contemporary choreographers, sums up his daily grind. "Choices, decisions, are always there to be made. That's both the pressure and the reward of my job.
"You're the boss," he insists, "and because you are the boss, you know that nobody else can make those decisions for you. Besides," Shechter says with a wry grin, "even if they tried, I wouldn't trust them. I don't ever really believe anybody else's opinion. That's what I call the loneliness of creation."
The creation currently under way is Political Mother, which is scheduled to premiere on 20 May as one of the central events in this year's Brighton Festival. Devised for 10 dancers and eight musicians, it marks Shechter's troupe's second season as the resident company at the Brighton Dome.
Now one of the busiest theatres in the country, the Dome is situated at the back edge of the Royal Pavilion's elaborate gardens. It was originally built at the very dawn of the 19th-century to house the Prince Regent's stables and riding school – but you'd need to be a local historian to spot anything equestrian about today's sleek, state-of-the-art venue. "It's a great place to be, a wonderful place to work" says Shechter. "London is now my home, but Brighton has been very, very generous to me and my company."
There is a kind of urban-guerrilla edginess to Shechter's movement style. Its gritty, unorthodox manoeuvres can catch you off guard in ways that are bound to disorient conventional expectations. There is nothing complacent to be seen here.
Championed by the UK press, presented with a Critics' Circle Award in 2008, lauded in The New York Times as "thrilling", and nominated for a South Bank Show Award, Shechter has a compelling view of the world. It is a dizzy, sometimes confrontational, take on how we attempt to negotiate the pressures that are pummelling in on our daily lives.
Now 34, the Israeli-born Shechter arrived in the UK in 2002 via Paris. His first job here was as a drummer in a band called The Human Beings. "Music was a hobby for me, really. I had played the piano since I was a kid and had spent a couple of years getting into percussion, but I knew that at a certain point I would get serious with dance.
"I had started dancing folk-dance in my school," he remembers. "Everybody had to do it. Then one day I met the youth dance group from the Jerusalem Academy and – wow, they were all girls! I went to visit them and it was really cool, like Fame. At the age of 15-and-a-half, I knew I had to go there." Within a couple of years, Shechter ended up in Israel's leading dance company, Batsheva.
Like every other Israeli, he had to serve his time in the army. He hated the unyielding regimentation, but says it is only one of the reasons why he decided to leave for Europe. "It was partly instinct, partly just the way things were rolling," he says. "I lived in France for a while, but even though I speak French, it's easier here. It's not only the language in France – when you're not French in France, it's very obvious. Here, it feels like everybody is not English so, hey, I'm at home."
Shechter's first dance job in this country was with his fellow Israeli expat Jasmin Vardimon. "In 2004 we had a month off, and I used it to make my own choreography for a competition in Finland. After that," he says, "I decided to drop everything and give a year of my life to try to see if I could be a choreographer." He's never needed to regret that decision.
Importantly, Shechter continues to compose the scores for all of his own dances. "I sometimes use snippets of Bach, two or three minutes here or there, but music is such a big part of my choreography that I don't think I could create an entire piece to someone else's score."
Playing his cards close to his chest, Shechter refuses to reveal in advance just what the musicians will be doing in Political Mother, but he does say they are going to be much more than a backing band. "They are another layer in the piece. Music is very powerful and influential on the world of the piece, on its feel and its atmosphere. The musicians appear, then they disappear, and reappear somewhere else, somewhere totally unexpected."
As with the last three Shechter creations, Political Mother is a collaboration with the lighting designer Lee Curran. "If something works, go with it," says Shechter. "We are growing together.
"My scores are very full-on; but, saying that, there has to be a place in my music for the dance to breathe. It is easy to get carried away with music that is wonderful on its own but doesn't leave enough space for the dance; that's no good. There has to be a co-existence."
The vital importance that Shechter places on the impact of his music is shown in his most famous work, In Your Rooms. A unique and award-winning show, it was conceived as a fast-track project that saw his company moving from The Place (300 seats) to Queen Elizabeth Hall (900 seats) and then on to Sadler's Wells (1,500 seats), all within a few months.
Both Shechter's score and the number of dancers expanded with each venue. The music began as a recording, gained a couple of musicians playing live at Queen Elizabeth Hall, then sported a full band poised on a platform that hovered above the dancers at the Wells.
An innovative and ambitious experiment in scale, it proved such a huge hit with both audiences and critics alike that it attained an unanticipated afterlife at London's Roundhouse. Dubbed The Choreo-grapher's Cut, it was extended to include 17 dancers and 20 musicians.
Shechter is clearly thrilled by this ever-expanding course of events. "If one person was sat in a room and watched, he might enjoy it very much," he says, "but he would miss out on a serious aspect of my work, on the acknowledgement of the ceremony of it.
"My work is not finished until there is an audience watching. I absolutely insist on that. It is a ceremony, and the ceremony is made for the audience. It's made up of the energy that is bouncing back and forth between the stage and the audience. It is a primitive thing that has been going on ever since theatre was first invented.
"It is a very powerful and very special thing, a tribal communal sharing, but it isn't necessarily about size; it is about energy. A group of more than four is good. Four hundred is better. But 4,000? No, I doubt it."
There is at least one exception to that numbers game. Millions of viewers have watched his choreography for Skins, which became the opening credits for the teen TV drama series that has became something of a cult. "Doing that was a lot of fun," Shechter says, "an easy afternoon's work."
Political Mother is going to spend much of the next year being performed in a wide variety of spaces around the UK, including Sadler's Wells in mid-July, across Europe and as far afield as Tokyo, Seoul, Singapore and Sydney.
And what about the title? "It's something I thought up a long time ago, but have never used. I think titles are very important," he explains. "They can be a key, a clue into the piece – but they can also be a trap.
"What is it about? I can't come up with one single answer, thank God. If I could, that would be horribly wrong," he says. "That's called brainwashing.
"If you prepare someone, if you tell them that this means that, or this is something really deep, then, I think, you are bound to ruin the moment when it finally happens on the stage.
"For me, a title is a bit of a filter, a way to start to see the work – it should definitely attune the brains of the people who are coming to see it – but it's not meant to give everything away."
Shechter once made a piece for men only called Uprising. Last year, he produced a dance for women titled The Art of Not Looking Back. And now with Political Mother, the cast is evenly split: five women, five men.
Running at just over an hour without an interval, this is Shechter's biggest and longest dance yet. "Doing it all myself is a dream, but also a nightmare, because it's such a 24-hours-a-day commitment.
"My poor girlfriend," he laughs. "I talk her to death about what I need to do next. She should be shouting at me, 'Just go to your room and finish the piece already.' So, I guess I better go do that."
'Political Mother', Brighton Festival, Thurs and Fri, (brightonfestival.org), and then touring (see politicalmother.co.uk for details of dates and venues)
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