Neil Norman, dance and theatre critic for the Daily Express and The Stage, speaks to Hofesh Shechter about his new trilogy, barbarians.
It is easy to break things. But it’s much harder to put them back together. Yet destruction carries with it the collateral notion of cleansing. By sweeping away the old, the established, the stale and the corrupt, it is possible to start again with a clean landscape. Possible, but not always attainable.
The Roman Empire, the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the entire Etruscan culture – all have been annihilated one way or another by those whom we call barbarians. The Visigoths, the Taliban and the Romans (Ha!) are all subsequently lumped together under the same perjorative term. But the root of the word barbarian simply means ‘alien’ or ‘foreign’.
“As you know, it’s all right to treat barbarians barbarically,” wrote Bertolt Brecht. “It’s the desire to be barbaric that makes governments call their enemies barbarians.”
It is fanciful to imagine Hofesh Shechter galloping through the dance Establishment with a sword in one hand and a copy of Rousseau’s Social Contract in the other, smashing conventional structures and tearing down sacred cows. Where most artists attempt to seek order out of chaos, Shechter has made a habit of seeking chaos out of order. For only in chaos, he suggests, will we truly understand the truth of ourselves. One is tempted to call him a Neo-Dadaist but that is not quite accurate. His work is closer to the blazing, groundbreaking anarchy of The Living Theatre of Julian Beck and Judith Malina than the deconstructive antics and deliberate travesties of Tristan Tzara and Marcel Duchamp.
So why is his trilogy of dance works entitled ‘barbarians’?
“It is about the disconnect there is between ourselves, our bodies and the set of rules and culture around us,” says Shechter. “We all have plans and we all mess them up constantly because of the instincts that are driving us. I experience constant failing in my dreams of life. I am probably not alone in that.”
barbarians was conceived as a trilogy, but a disjointed one. Each of the works can stand alone – from the first outing in February of the barbarians in love for The Associates programme at Sadler’s Wells to the second work, tHE bAD, which premiered at HOME. The third, entitled Two completely different angles of the same fucking thing – is a duet that Shechter claims is the point of the entire evening. But he only realised this when he finally saw all three performed together.
“The process of making this was so different to any other piece I have done. I wanted a trilogy but three different pieces. They each have different energies but they all tied together.”
If working with baroque music for the barbarians in love was a first for him, then his approach to tHE bAD was even more of a self-imposed challenge.
“The second piece was an attempt to try and make a piece without thinking, because I think a lot. We made it in Germany and I decided to do it all at night. When you work at night, it seems timeless. And then I thought: ‘What are the elements that I would NEVER work with? Gold bodysuits!’ So that’s what we went for. It was the most amazing creative process I have been involved in. It respects nothing. All the time we exist in a place where you don’t know whether it’s serious or not. You just accept that what happens, happens. And that’s it. It’s an ‘anything goes’ piece.”
The duet that concludes the trilogy is something else again.
“I worked with the dancers who have lasted longest in my company. They are the ones I trust most. You need to be able to trust your dancers when you are going through events that are unstructured. The first time I saw the whole evening in Berlin I realised that the first two pieces are the preparation. The duet is the reason for them to exist. It’s what this trilogy is about. It was the first time I was at peace with the evening. It’s never perfect. But it’s an honest snapshot of a moment in a man’s life.”
Shechter’s life has informed his work in many ways – sometimes seriously and sometimes with mischief bordering on the adolescent. The drop-dead confessions he delivers in voice-over are shockingly candid – if they are true. Yes, the fact that he was abandoned by his mother at the age of 2 is well-documented, revealed in an embittered tirade in his all-female piece, The Art Of Not Looking Back; but the fact of his infidelity – conveyed in the first draft of the barbarians in love – was not.
Ever reluctant to elucidate on the ‘meaning’ or the sources of his works, Shechter is nonetheless aware that he is unpacking his cultural history and personal memories that might otherwise fester in the depths of his psyche. It is evident in the mutated folk dancing of his youth in Israel, in the dance language of Ohad Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company as well as the politicised gymnastics of Yasmin Vardimon’s company – both of whom he worked with before starting his own company. But the personal stuff is much harder to locate.
“There is a game with the audience,” he says when pushed on the confessional aspect his work. “We are pretending, but at the same time it is real. There are things that are never spoken about in public. It is embarrassing. But embarrassment is power. It’s part of the evolution of our race. In the new version of the barbarians in love I cut it at the point when the confession is about to start. We are playing a game – a powerful fantasy of life in the theatre where everything is pretence. But the emotions inside are real. I know I am creating confessions, creating more interruptions. It is now cryptic enough that no-one will make sense of it. And I am happy about that. “
However great the challenge Shechter’s works may be for an audience, they are nothing to the challenges he sets himself. Failure, for him, is always an option. It is evident in the amusement he expresses at how some observers interpret his work.
“Someone told me that a French or a German critic, I am not sure which, thought barbarians was about the financial crisis in Greece. Wow! The best moments I have seeing my work – or anyone else’s work – is watching it and letting it be in the moment. Without any judgement. All of us are dance critics once we walk into the theatre. I think it should be treated like a day in the spa.”
The idea that an encounter with any of Shechter’s works, from Uprising to Political Mother, is like ‘a day in the spa’ seems faintly ludicrous. Can it be that behind his thoughtful, studious and civilised manner lurks the soul of a true anarchist? Maybe – whisper the word– a barbarian?
“Barbarian?” he says. “It is an expression of self-hatred, isn’t it? On one hand I am a nerd. I have to be on time at rehearsals. I have to write music and be in a studio and create structures. I have said many times that the way I work with dancers is chaotic. But I think it is pretentious to call yourself an anarchist. I’m too nerdy but I fight that tendency in me. Anarchy is associated with violence and breaking things. So maybe I am. There is something in that.”
He pauses. Thinks carefully about what he has just said. I suggest that what motivates him more than anything else is the desire to retrieve the concept of ‘free will’.
“I’m at a place in my life where I would replace the term ‘free will’ with ‘discovery in life’. I see that things erupt. The truth is actually revealed to me whether I like it or not. You can follow your truth or you can ignore it. It is predestined. This is a belief. I couldn’t prove any of this. I believe that there is a sensation of freedom. But it is an illusion.”
Depending on your definition of civilisation, it might be argued that we are all, in one way or another, barbarians. This is certainly true of the American writer Robert E. Howard, whose books of fantasy are veined with a philosophical dignity that persists today.
“Barbarianism is the natural state of mankind,” wrote the creator of Conan and Kull. “Civilisation is unnatural. It is the whim of circumstance. And barbarianism must ultimately triumph.”
Given Shechter’s predilection for exploring the conflict between Man’s natural instincts and the straitjackets of civilisation, I ask him if he believes we are trapped in a cycle of societal construction and destruction. There are those who claim that the barbarians are even now at the gate of Western democracy in the same way as the Visigoths hammered at the gates of Rome. Is this an inevitable consequence of a rational desire for order which runs counter – as Shechter believes – to our instincts?
“Obviously,” he says. “But the West is looked upon as barbaric by others. It would appear to be inevitable. It would appear to be natural. Even with our high cultural values we can’t stop it. We created a belief system and a value system which we can’t actually match. It is beyond us.”
But not, I venture, beyond Hofesh Shechter to search and destroy, illuminate and – possibly – reassemble.
barbarians: A Trilogy by Hofesh Shechter, runs from Thursday 28 – Saturday 30 January. Find out more and buy tickets here.
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