23 September 2010

Hofesh Shechter/Political Mother

Political Mother, Hofesh Shechter Company, Théatre de la Ville, Paris, September 22, 2010    —Peter Sparling

Enter at the top of a sleep slope of seats, barely visible in the dense theatre fog. Already, we are immersed in an effect, calculated to?? (Despite this, the sight lines are still terrific at the Theatre de la Ville.) Like the smog rising from the traffic along the right bank of the Seine, we forget its effect on/in our bodies after the initial sting. Does this bode ill, or would that be merely doom-eager, to borrow Martha Graham’s term for favoring premonitions of the dark side? By the end of Hofesh Shechter Company’s performance, we have seen mostly the dark side, even while Joni Mitchell’s gravelly, weather-beaten voice sings nostalgically but knowingly of both sides of the clouds. Clouds of fog! We get it. But how did we get there?

The curtain opens on a man in renaissance garb holding a sword like some tragic Shakespearian hero. Isolated in a pool of fog-drenched light, he peers up into space, then plunges his sword into his gut, falls to his knees and, in spasmodic grandeur, collapses to the floor.  Blackout. The same special comes up on two men, who introduce the thematic movement motifs of the evening’s one-act epic, or should I say, modern dance requiem., or should I say a real mother of a political dance? (The opening scene was accompanied by Verdi’s Requiem.) These men dance, shoulders raised and wrists flashing cryptic scrawls in the air as if swayed by an Israeli folk song, seem to be pleading or bargaining with their (largely absent) God. They shuffle and hop to the incessant, percussive beat of the recorded musical score, (a musical collaboration by Neil Catchpole and Yaron Engler), then are joined by 6 drummers standing lined in formation upstage. We see their hands work in minute synchronicity. A politician/tyrant at a microphone (played by the choreographer) appears above them high center, grunting and raging a rant of garbled, guttural nonsense. His gestures mirror or provoke what is to come. And then he is replaced by the figure of a disheveled rock star at a rave, or is he a prophet?

A cast of twelve amazingly lithe and fluid yet relentlessly powerful dancers enter to amplify the movement of the first duet, illuminated from both sets of wings by lighting designer Lee Curran’s 12 side stands, each stacked with 6 stadium lights (hints of Metropolitan Opera designer Gil Weschler’s now-standard invention). They stand in groups, like the inheritors of Anna Sokolow’s angst-ridden lost generation of disillusioned souls, then break out into rhythmic patterns of hunched, migrating Neanderthals in permanent Graham contraction, their arms like tentacles or scribbles of finely etched graffiti. But they generate a thousand contractions within that held contraction, building to some common purpose before dissolution drains the stage of bodies. We see them at some political rally, a rave, a revivalist meeting, and then nothing but a court-like grid of lights cast from overhead, and the sweet music of some Bach trio-sonata. This is replaced by the growl of subterranean plumbing, and suddenly the dancers are in line along the front of the stage in drab prison garb, slowly stalked by a guard in an ape mask.

Vignettes of subjugation—of two standing as a third holds a gun to their heads— merge into a central unison section, which brings into focus the question of the evening: Is a group moving in unison about collective subjugation, inspired solidarity, or mass conformity? Does a community or world respond to horror in the only way it knows: by absorbing its trauma into an ethnic folk dance? Is this dance the mother of all civilizations as we rise and fall through the fog of history, or do we make it our stand-in mother, whether at a political rally, a rave or a wedding?

The scene shifts to a quartet armored in black shoulder and leg panels, moving us backwards in time to the opening scene. It’s unfortunate we cannot see the details of these fine dancers in the murky light—an example of effect partially obliterating something of telling substance. Shechter continues this method—of returning us to past episodes or motifs as if to create for the work its own internal history or timeline. He begins to work a kind of choreographic memory map, which will become most apparent at the end. Is he returning us to a neutral present, dancers in contemporary garb, or to a universal state of all humankind, in prison pajamas, before shifting us to the next episode?

After a long wait on an empty stage, we are fully into the universal prison yard, and it is clear that the emotional state of these souls is not divorced in some form of post-modern deconstruction from their movement. These are fully committed and inspired performers, masterfully fulfilling the choreographer’s stark vision of a circle of hell, dancers stumbling to keep up while orbiting doom.  The electric guitar choir hovers over them along the back like demonic angels: a sonic wailing wall.

A duet follows that hints at some redemption, or is it that all subjugation is rooted in or mirrored by the relationship of man and woman? One duet become five, and the heterosexual domination becomes overbearing for a shortsighted moment.

Is this becoming a 21st century version of Ravel’s ever-persistent Bolero, or an update on Sacre de Printemp’s ethnic barbarism a century later, but without the sacrificial virgin or any hope of spring? What is the message? Just as the question occurs, an uncompleted text appears like political scrawl written in light across the back screen: “Where there is pressure”. Groups break off into 3s, then 4s then a duet… fog again. A group of 8 picks up thematic threads in counterpoint against a quartet.  Is this the (hopeful?) emergence of a new form or language, not unlike the hypermobile movement calligraphies evolving from Ohad Naharin and his Gaga methodology, or countless other contemporary choreographers? (Shechter’s seems more rooted in an ethnic base, more character-driven.) Dancers reappear in rehearsal clothes (as in the closing scene of Bill T. Jones’s’ recent Lincoln tribute). And then the audience guffaws and chuckles with the completion of the quote across the backdrop: “…there is the folk dance”.

Sad irony or hope? The last unison rave begins as an ecstatic trance dance but succumbs once again to the domination of the raving politician. Then we see in compressed re-run but backwards in time the entire dance played out like a Doris Humphrey nature visualization, leading us inexorably back to the Shakespearean actor committing hari-kari in reverse.  The curtain descends on Joni Mitchell’s sad reflective lament to the flower children of the 60’s. All returns to fog and clouds.

One dancer stands out from the rest—a woman whose head is closely shaved at the sides with a knob of dark hair on top. Maëva Berthelot first appears in the only red dress and immediately embodies both the sharp-edged percussive beat and the warped, undulating morphology that is Shechter’s signature style. She somehow imbues the movement with a desperate vulnerability that makes it personal. I feel for her, amidst so much virtuosic group thrashing.

As I walked home from the theater, I passed the Hôtel de Ville lit up like a disco, with its statuary back-lit and framed in alcoves exactly like the musicians in Shechter’s work. Monuments to what? Political Mother is a danced requiem to the tragedy of the world’s ongoing tales of terror and subjugation of the individual spirit to the perversions of power. Does it tell the tale differently than countless other group dances I’ve seen embodying the same theme? Perhaps a new generation needs to learn its lessons according to new visions, new music, new stagings, and, most of all, a new movement vocabulary that outdoes any morphing animation available in a technology-glutted culture. The sold-out audience of the Theatre de la Ville gave the cast a roaring reception and rhythmic applause.  Whether by effect or substance, the dance worked its own kind of magic.