Saturday, December 10, 2022

Dead and Alive: Double Murder by the UK’S Hofesh Shechter Company

The Hofesh Shechter Company performing Clowns. (Photo: Todd MacDonald)

Terrific. It’s a word denoting terror and intensity of experience. Both meanings apply to the Hofesh Shechter Company’s Double Murder program that slayed all who saw it at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre at the end of October. Divided into two parts and presented as part of the ongoing Torque series of international dance, Double Murder plumbs the anxiety and dread of the pandemic with an imagination as fearless as it is foreboding. 

Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter, a resident of London who is an assistant artist at the city’s Sadler’s Wells dance organization, created the concept of the double bill during the lockdowns, later saying he wanted to present a brace of contrasting dances “for our times.” 

Clowns, with its relentless depictions of slit throats, brute rapes and shots to the head, came first, debuting in 2016 when the world was still healthy enough to digest an onslaught of deadly ironic imagery. It’s absurdist theatre constructed as a punch of a dance. Shechter in his program notes describes it as anarchic. The Fix, a recent work now following Clowns as part of an expanded 90-minute program, softens the blows. Concluding with a group hug, it is about togetherness, not turbulence, redemption, not moral rot. 

Double Murder might be a pandemic project, though nothing about it is directly concerned with COVID-19. Yet both works on the program are consumed with themes of death and survival, making them timely indeed. As opposed to showing the ravages of disease on the human body, however, here Shechter uses the breakdown and subsequent rebuilding of the collective body of humanity to serve as a metaphor for social disorder and regeneration at a time of crisis. Taken together, the works form an existentialist spectacle where humanity falters but never quite falls apart. The life force is just too strong.

Representing that vital principle are supercharged steps that are aggressive, giddy, even poignant in their depictions of the human condition in precarious circumstances. Shechter has his dancers perform these steps mostly as a group, highlighting the need for collective action in the face of great challenges.

Hofesh Shechter Company performed The Fix. (Photo: Todd MacDonald)

There’s tragedy in Double Murder, along with comedy, biting satire and utopian visions. The company’s 10 dancers skip maniacally after miming out executions of blindfolded victims of some nebulous war. Elsewhere they sit cross legged with eyes closed, contemplating life’s mystery and madness.

Shechter choreographed the carnival-like dances together with those that slump and hunch and slink along to a dirge-like vocal in the second half. The cinematic sound-score is his, created from drumming, guitar playing and ambient noise. Gunshot rips through what in Clowns looks like a danse macabre, full of jerky, springy and spasmodic movement. The music in this piece is generally percussive and loud, a deliberate assault on the senses.

The Fix is quieter but no less transfixing. Some rhythms are clapped out of slapped out with a thud to the chest. It’s the human touch that matters.

The dancing in this second part proceeds slowly, like a venerable t’ai chi master, in its quest for spiritual meaning amid the chaos. Palms are open, indicating a willingness to accept the unexpected. A duet unfolds, a symbol of partnership, followed by a howling at an imaginary moon. Then comes a breakdown of more barriers as dancers climb down from the stage to commingle with willing members of the audience, enveloping them in a warm embrace. The gesture of intimacy comes at the conclusion of an evening otherwise given over to shadowy displays of deception, making it feel genuinely raw and real as a statement of hope.

Permission is sought, smilingly, before the point of human contact occurs, and no one sitting there, in their seats in the dark, refuses. Theatre does shimmer, and love. Surprisingly, a tender moment, a true bridging of souls, made possible by an artist supreme control over his métier. The lasting impression is that Shechter is no ordinary just-choreographer. He’s a dance maker who makes you feel and think and that, in a word, is terrific.

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic and style writer on staff at The Globe and Mail newspaper from 1985 to 2017. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York, the Dance Gazette in London, and NUVO in Vancouver, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet and AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she is a two-time recipient (2020 and 2014) of Canada’s Nathan Cohen Prize for outstanding critical writing. In 2017, she joined York University as Editor of the award-winning The York University Magazine where she is also the publication’s principal writer.

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