Dance visionary Hofesh Shechter is putting on a SHOW in Belfast

For the first NI performance in five years under his name, the revered choreographer has narrowed a thousand young dancers down to just eight and says it's 'euphoric' to see his twisted tale of fools and kings brought to life

His is not exactly a name one encounters every day but in the arts world it is so well known that it doesn't need a surname attached. It stands alone. Hofesh. His company even uses it as its brand, his signature flashed across the corner of the website, as though that's all that needs to be said.

Israeli dancer, choreographer, musician, composer Hofesh Shechter is widely acknowledged within the international cultural sector as a force of nature. His works are a heady, visceral cross between rock gigs and hard-hitting pieces of dance theatre. They generate a powerful physical effect, leaving on audiences a lasting impression that is less about seeing or hearing as about feeling, deeply, darkly, intensely. His style is unique and entirely original. Nobody else at present is making work like this. Leaving a Hofesh performance can be challenging, when one’s knees are weak, one’s spine is tingling and one’s head is spinning.

Shechter first came to Northern Ireland to audition dancers for the inaugural UK-wide youth dance company, which would perform under his direction during the London Cultural Olympiad. Working with Belfast company DU Dance and its artistic director Mags Byrne, he picked out the talented Brona Jackson and Jemima Brown to join the U.Dance Ensemble, the headline performers at the U Dance 2012 Festival at the capital’s Southbank Centre.

In March 2013, he was back, this time with his own company in Derry~Londonderry, to present his explosive Political Mother as part of the city's year as UK City of Culture. His plan was to embed the performances within the local community and he was as good as his word. Over a two-week period, 16 phenomenal professional dancers worked with young people from the area in a spin-off dance project, while over half the musicians playing live on stage on the night were from the city and its surrounds.

Now his name is once more on our radar, as the intriguingly titled SHOW comes to the MAC in Belfast from May 17 to 19. It will be performed by Shechter II, the eight-strong apprentice company whose young members, aged between 18 and 25, represent some of the world’s most inspiring rising talent. Shechter speaks of them with a mixture of affection and admiration:

'Yes, they are young, very young, but they are so gifted. We started with a thousand dancers and then they became eight. I knew we would find talented people and we did, but I was amazed at how weirdly tight they became as a group and how quickly it happened. I can sense that tightness as soon as I come into the (rehearsal) room. I feel what I have to work with. These young people come from all over the world, from Poland, France, Singapore, a few from England. They don’t all speak the same language, but the beautiful thing about dance is that it doesn’t matter. If you connect to the work and to me, you are in.'

SHOW started life as a single piece called Clowns, which premiered at Nederlands Dans Theater in 2016. It is a piece that is both mischievous and dark, wild and dangerous, a kind of danse macabre set in a circus tent. Shechter has since framed it with two new compositions, which he describes as the Entrance and the Exit to Clowns. The trio piece opened at Teatro Ariosto Reggio Emilia in March and Belfast audiences will be experiencing its first tour. The Financial Times review of the London premiere colourfully summed it up:

'SHOW casts Shechter II’s eight dancers as jesters and fools in a disquieting, atmospheric circus. A ringmaster presides over the action, which is full of Shechter-isms: the bouncy, folkloric stomping, the hunched shoulders, the primal-looking response to a heavy beat. The choreographer also composed the percussive score, a throwback to his Israeli folk influences. As is often the way with Schechter, violence lurks in SHOW’s court of miracles.'

The central theme has evolved from a single thought which he says he wrote down a very long time ago - 'a topsy turvy world in which fools can be kings and kings fools.' One’s immediate response to this statement is that the perception seems strikingly relevant to the crazy, perilous world in which we are currently living, but Shechter doesn’t necessarily see it that way.

'I think this feeling that kings are fools and fools can be kings is quite an old feeling and it’s been like that for thousands of years, I’m afraid. There’s something about SHOW that speaks about a cycle that is endless, that is in human nature. There are major questions of morality floating around but we live in a culture where we are trying to create some sort of order. Yet we are still very much attracted to violence, to power, to things that give a false sense of security by eliminating others, but it doesn’t actually help.

'These are the kind of thoughts that were in my head when I was creating this work. I’m trying to not make it specific to a place or a time – it is a dance piece after all - but everything about it is made up. It’s not made out of words but out of imagery and as our thoughts are subjective, the response is about what we feel. It was created from within that atmosphere.'

Still, one does not have to search far in any direction these days to find examples of his kings and fools analogy. We live in a climate of political spin and fake news. Surely our world is beset by fools masquerading as kings?

'Yes, but I wonder if it was not always like that. It’s just that now we pay attention more. The extreme realities of today bring it to the surface. It’s a matter of appearances. One way or another a king is a performer. A person who stands up there and leads is a sort of a performer. We have seen horrible ones during the history of humankind. When I was a kid, Reagan was the President of the United States. I remember my big brother telling me he’s just an actor and I thought no, you’re just making that up. But he was actually an actor and he was acting being a president. I remember realising that’s what leaders are - actors and performers.

'I fell in love with the title SHOW. On the surface it is just a show and the performers are there to entertain you. It’s quite simple and direct but under the surface it is much deeper or more interesting or more disturbing. It’s about putting on a show, keeping up appearances. It plays with the audience. They have to find out what is the real heart of the show. It begins with us just trying to keep the audience with us but then the gist of it is that it starts to resort to more and more violence and, weirdly enough – and that’s the interesting thing - it is entertaining. It’s light hearted and it’s funny but it has a darkness, which starts looming until you realise that the show is toying with us. It’s entertaining but it's threatening at the same time.

'It’s euphoric to see these guys on stage. I’m really happy about how this whole piece came together. It looks great and I really hope that people in Belfast will take it all in.'

Shechter clearly relishes talking about and analysing his work in an open and honest manner. He declares that it is always his intention to depoliticise the work, to make it apolitical. At the same time, he acknowledges that it carries strong political and cultural echoes, while insisting that there is no agenda. It doesn’t tell people how to feel or what to do; it sets out to connect to a very basic place in the audience’s experience. He likes to create an atmosphere of unease, crumbling cultural and political references until the piece feels connected to something ancient and simple, something tribal, something primal – an effect which he admits can be quite scary.

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He has worked across genres, with the Royal Ballet and Sadler’s Wells Ballet, in musical theatre, television and opera; he composes the high energy, percussively driven scores for his pieces, developing them side by side with the dance, rather than the other way round. He readily admits that his life experiences form the bedrock of his creative imagination - growing up in Jerusalem, joining the Jerusalem Academy for Dance and Music, graduating into the Batsheva Dance Company, studying drum and percussion in Tel Aviv and Paris, being conscripted into the Israeli Defence Forces for a year (something he has described as being '… like an electrical short circuit in my brain'), and, in 2002, moving to London, from where he travels the world. In spite of having lived in the UK for 16 years, he still views himself as an immigrant and expresses mild bewilderment at the way interviewers and critics regularly seem more interested in Hofesh the person than Hofesh the artist.

'I think I live a complex life because, on the one hand, my work is celebrated and there is a level of success. My work is supported by the system in the UK, which is a major reason why I am here. But at the same time, I’m an immigrant, I’m Jewish. There are a lot of events and emotions that I deal with when I’m here. And of course it all makes its way into the work. I was raised in a situation of conflict and I remember when I was in Ireland seeing very strong emotions, very strong parallels. Growing up in Israel is a very extreme reality and all these micro and macro emotions are there in the work.

'To be honest, thinking about my country brings quite a lot of frustration. People speak of whether the situation there is hopeful or depressing but I mainly get downcast thinking about how futile and pointless everything is for reasons that I can barely understand. There is a weird obsession in the whole world with Israel. I’m not really clear if it’s the same with other choregraphers and their work. But people are curious about me somehow. They think about me as the creator, rather than about the creation. When they speak about a dance piece, I feel there is always some desire to speak about what I mean in the work. Is that because I am from Israel? Someone told me that it’s weird how when people speak about your work, they speak about you. I wonder if it’s connected to Jewishness and Israel and so on.'

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He is aware of the parallels and political identification made by certain communities in Northern Ireland with the situation in his home place, but he downplays the equivalences in his own interpretation.

'I know about it but, one way or another, I think political parallels are dangerous because they can be a tool for politicians to gain power for whatever reason, even if it may be for very good causes. I think people have to look at the situation that they have at hand and try to solve it their own way.'

His trademark dance style is redolent of his own rock’n’roll image, his individualistic vision and egalitarian philosophy. It has been massively influential in breaking down barriers, demythologising the art form, making dance accessible and infectious. Does he feel that these days dance is connecting in a more mainstream way, reaching out to and attracting new audiences?

'As far as my work is concerned, I only see the people who walk in through the doors. My feeling is that even though audiences for contemporary dance are still, broadly speaking, middle class – in that it is mainly consumed by art lovers - there are a lot of people and audiences that we are expanding into. New places, more and more young people. I really hope that we are taken down off that tree because there is something in dance about celebrating life in an almost spiritual way, giving a deeper layer to our lives. You don’t have to be rich to understand that. Quite the opposite, you don’t need anything but your body to come and experience it.

'What I saw in dance as a kid was a door to an international world, to a place where you can travel and meet people, where barriers are melted away. That’s what excited me most about it, amongst other things. But that door, that multi-cultural feeling around dance … yeah, it’s one of a kind.'

SHOW by Shechter II comes to the MAC, Belfast from May 17 to 19. For performance times and ticket booking visit www.themaclive.com/event/clowns-by-shechter-II or call 028 9023 5053.

Images via www.hofesh.co.uk.