Venue: The MAC, Belfast
Dates: 17 to 19 May 2018
Choreography, music & direction: Hofesh Shechter
In a week that began with the killings of Palestinian protestors in Gaza and ended with the massacre of children in a Texas high school, one can be left in no doubt that ours is a cruel world. With wars raging in Africa and the Middle East, violence on the streets and conflicts threatening around almost every corner, it feels as though there has never been a more dangerous time in which to be alive.
But Hofesh Shechter, one of the world’s most celebrated artists, believes that it has ever been thus, that the dividing line between fools and kings has always been blurred to the point of non-existence.
Devoted followers and detractors of Shechter’s work regularly find themselves as much caught up with the man as with his outcomes. But in this week of all weeks, his background as a child of Jerusalem and a reluctant conscript to the Israeli defence forces adds real grist to the impact of his latest piece, as well as to his assertion that events in his home place regularly cause him to feel frustrated, depressed and bewildered.
His new work SHOW is a vivid reflection on those beliefs and on so much more besides. The central piece Clowns is framed with two newly created short bookends and welded into a nightmarish exposé of what Shakespeare’s Hamlet called ‘the smiling villain’, the person who wields the knife or the gun or the bomb or the poison or the rope to deadly effect, while uttering saccharine words and mealy-mouthed platitudes.
Northern Ireland audiences are among the first to experience Shechter II, a new company of gifted young apprentices on their inaugural tour of SHOW in the immediate aftermath of its premiere in Italy. Why the MAC was not packed to the rafters for every performance is something of a mystery. This was an occasion for proclaiming from the rooftops the first-time arrival in Belfast of one of the world’s great dance companies.
On stage, proceedings begin softly and stealthily in semi darkness. The performance space glows in the golden haze of a row of uplighters placed at floor level across the back wall. Seven figures are lined up, holding hands, slowly lifting their bowed heads to eyeball the audience in a gesture of defiance – or conspiracy? It’s hard to know which. It is a device that will be employed with growing, unsettling intensity as the next 55 minutes of non-stop high-energy dance unfolds.
Frothy costumes in soft, off-white organza and linen suggest a heady mixture of circus characters: clown and vagabond, guignol and gavroche, dandy and jester. Holding the circle is the ringmaster, resplendent in cream tail coat and scarlet cravat, whipping his players into a frantic game of chase and catch and kill.
While this charismatic figure is conductor and king, the real dictator is the score, conceived by Shechter – himself a classically trained percussionist – and developed in collaboration with the dance and the dancers. Pounding, moaning and crackling, punctuated by psychedelic Korean rock and Italian baroque, it evolves into a deafening explosion of screaming and wailing and incessant murderous gunfire.
And all the while, these gifted young dancers turn up the heat and the pace on a catalogue of fun and games, human agony and primal terror, of which they are the perpetrators. Not once does their focus or technical precision flag. They hail from England and France, Poland and Belgium, Singapore and Spain. Their faces are alive with the culture and spirit of their homelands, all unerringly tuned in to the vision of their inspirational director.
This swirling, mesmerising danse macabre offers a universal metaphor, drawing references from classical, contemporary and folk dance, world literature and nursery rhymes, great art and music ancient and modern. The pictures created are at once gorgeous and gory, causing spectators to quake and recoil and fall prey to their overwhelming power.
SHOW is required viewing in places of conflict the world over. Whether those in charge will watch, listen and take note is another matter. Or will they merely continue to conform to the never-ending cycle of Shechter’s fools and kings analogy?