Sunday, November 15, 2015

Hofesh Shechter Company's barbarians at The Playhouse

Hofesh Shechter is my kind of choreographer: an extremely talented dance-maker who doesn't take himself too seriously. The Israeli-born, Batsheva-trained and UK-based artist, whose eponymous company first came to Vancouver in 2009 with Uprising and In Your Rooms (and about which I blogged here), was back at the Playhouse this weekend, once again at the invitation of DanceHouse. This time Shechter has brought his newest work, barbarians, a trilogy that might be said to be about the imaginative challenge--and also the necessary futility--of imposing order onto chaos.

That principle extends to the connections between the three sections, which were created separately and which, according to Shechter, unspool in reverse, with the still quiet core of the piece, a duet, only coming at the end. However, what we get at the start, in "the barbarians in love," is a riot of flood lights and follow spots, that sweep across the stage and out into the audience, momentarily blinding us before picking out and arresting in their white hot glow of surveillance six dancers. The dancers are also clad head to toe in white, like they have just escaped from a sanatorium, or a cult. And, indeed, over the course of this first section's thirty minutes, the four men and two women do seem to be moving in response to the computer-generated female voice-over, which intones god-like platitudes ("I am you, and you are me") before entering into a dialogue with the choreographer himself--who is, after all, another kind of unseen overlord in terms of dictating how his dancers should be moving. In this respect, the first section's concluding tableau, which sees the dancers, now completely naked, lined up downstage and slowly turning before us like specimens at an auction, certainly evokes ideas of a coldly clinical outside eye. Except in this case Shechter is at a loss as to how to explain his concept, beyond the fact that he is a 40 year-old man who had this idea to make something...

Which may be why, in the evening's second section, "tHE bAD," Shechter puts his dancers (now reduced by one man) in gold lame body suits. If the dancers in the first part looked like pod people just escaped from a sci-fi film, here they appear to have stepped out of an Andrew Lloyd Webber Broadway musical--not so far-fetched given that Shechter is currently in New York choreographing the revival of Fiddler on the Roof. What is consistent over both sections, however, is Shechter's distinctive mix of unison choreography with classical and vernacular dance vocabularies. At any given moment we have the dancers giving us different baroque formations and noble steps, or else breaking into Israeli folk dancing circles, and even throwing in the odd bit of krumping. What is consistent throughout is the amazing footwork of the dancers, who when shuffling across the stage in a riot of club grooves or descending into and rising from a plie in demi-point are nothing short of mesmerizing.

Finally, in the last section, "two completely different angles of the same fucking thing," we see a couple--the woman dressed in simple slacks and a blouse, the man, somewhat incongruously, in lederhosen--engaged in a simple two step. Eventually they come together in an awkward attempt at partnering that begins gently and playfully, but that gradually becomes more physical and even violent. If, extrapolating from Shechter's comments about the centrality of this section to the work as a whole, we take the duet to be one of the base-line structures of Western concert dance, then such juxtapositions are appropriate. For, as Walter Benjamin has written, "There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism."


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