Review: Hofesh Shechter - Sun - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 30 October - 2 November 2013
Reviewed by Donald Hutera - Friday 1 November 2013

Hofesh Shechter 'Sun' Photo: Gabriele Zucca

Hofesh Shechter is now a big enough name in British dance, post his international hit Political Mother, to bestow ‘event’ status upon any UK premiere of a new work. The trick is to set aside the hype and air of expectation and, for me, a certain wariness about what feels like overfamiliarity with an admittedly distinctive choreographic signature and over-all aesthetic. The bottom line is that despite what I may identify as Shechter’s creative limitations, I still appreciate chewing on whatever kinetic food for thought he dishes up.

Shechter’s latest production starts in a deceptively light-hearted manner with the choreographer himself, via voice-over, jokily promising a happy ending of which he then proceeds to offer us a thirty-second glimpse. But he’s lying!

Sun is, in fact, about as dark and troubled as any Shechter show. Shot through with anger, frustration and a typically ironic sense of humour, it’s a big, bold piece for 17 dancers and, crucially, a lot of cut-outs. Christina Cunningham clothes the cast in vaguely period garb that references peasantry and the circus (including Philip Hulford’s dreadlocked Pierrot) plus at least one casually Chekhovian yet respectable white suit (worn by Erion Kruja). The cut-outs, meanwhile, are identical and multiple drawings of sheep, a tribesman and a pith-helmeted and, no doubt, colonising European explorer along with cameo appearances from a lone wolf, a businessman and a faceless hoodie-wearer. The dancers wield both the animal and human cut-outs as if they were a cross between puppets and shields. Shechter uses the imagery to lend the performance a smart socio-political dimension, wisely leaving it up to us to connect the dots for ourselves by spotting any villains or victims in what for him is a fundamentally imbalanced and bellicose stage universe.

His work remains inherently highly theatrical, fusing sophisticated production values (especially Lee Curran’s superb lighting design pinned to a field of bare, amber-toned lightbulbs suspended above Merle Hensel’s earth-tone floor and cyclorama) with the potentially visceral power of music (an original and predominantly percussive score into which Shechter as composer embeds samples of Wagner’s Tannhauser, Irving Berlin and Sigur Ros) and movement.

Most of Shechter’s folk-derived physical tropes are present here: the kick-step struts, the shimmy-shoulder ragdoll shakes and pelvic thrusts, the skulking and stealthy scurrying. And of course he knows how to shift a group of bodies about a space. At times the dancers rush off like dastardly bad-guy figures from classic melodrama only minus the moustaches and capes. The show’s defining gesture has a show biz flourish, with one arm raised above the head and the other extended horizontally in invitation. Kruja does it several times, often allowing his usually erect carriage to degenerate into a dejected slump.

At a key point this presentational gesture is used to turn an act of violence into a performance. Earlier the dancer Bruno Guillore had been along onstage, either gazing up at a single lit bulb or staggering about in some incoherent and unsourced vocal rage and grief. For a brief spell, too, the glimmering lights whirl electrically – and ambiguously – above him. It’s a short sequence but memorable both for its suggested depths of feeling and the fact that it gives us time to tune into individual expression rather than that of the usual Shechter collective. Later a few men beat Guillore with rubbery truncheons, their vicious attack framed by Gruja’s presentational stance; the men, including Guillore himself, eventually stand and take a bow.

What the above tells me is that Shechter’s somewhat undigested show – with its scattered sense of urgency, a rough neo-vaudevillian structure marked by repeated black-outs, and quick, recurring references to firing squads and mimetic gun-holding – is addressing the wider theatre of war. Steered by a kind of primally passionate detachment, it’s loaded with artifice. That includes the young woman in the front row whose sole task is to more than once rise to her feet and, pointing at something onstage, emit a blood-curdling scream; the fleeting moments when dancers don clownish white tulle Afros; Gruja’s desperate laughter and, more tellingly, the semi-intelligible sentence (was it ‘The fucking wall is behind you!’?) he screams out at the audience; and the mock-merriment of a danse macabre, plus a late spate of goose-stepping during the organised chaos of the climactic scene. The sun itself makes a few appearances as a glowing red-orange ball projected onto a large, hand-held sheet that is soon whisked away.

Astute yet fragmentary, and at times deliberately amorphous, Sun the show has a blunt poetry. Recognising the limits of conventional classical beauty, Shechter is playing seriously with symbols. What it all amounts to is, I think, a signal of his alarmed concern at the state of the world. I won’t spoil the ending by saying that – no surprise – it’s not at all happy. Interestingly, the audience response seemed relatively muted rather than titanically positive.

Continues at Sadler’s Wells until Sunday 2 November

Photos: Gabriele Zucca

Donald Hutera writes regularly about dance, theatre and the arts for The Times, Dance Europe, Animated and many other publications and websites.

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