Hofesh Shechter: Grand Finale review – a wild waltz for the end of time

The Guardian 2 months ago

Grand Finale is as apocalyptic a work as Hofesh Shechter has ever made. Squaring up to the precariousness of our world, the political and ecological disasters we’ve created for ourselves, it’s a work fraught with violence, dread and a manic kind of defiance. This is Shechter’s dance around the abyss, his waltz for the end of time. Yet as darkly dystopian as its premise may be, Grand Finale is lit with a curious optimism, as if the choreographer, in facing up to our terrifying zeitgeist, has also been able to exorcise some of his own private demons.

Those demons have long been familiar to British dance audiences. Early works such as Uprising were fuelled by Shechter’s conflicted attitudes to his homeland, Israel, the intoxicating earthiness of the movement in tension with the choreography’s brutal, almost militarised floor patterns. In The Art of Not Looking Back, he dwelt on the pain of his mother leaving his family when he was young. In Sun, a disconcerting mix of pastoral prettiness and anarchy nagged away at the imponderable issue of how to justify art in a disintegrating world. The sometimes self-sabotaging elements of banality in Barbarians spoke of Shechter’s need to force himself outside his creative comfort zone.

As he once said, he has always been terrified of making choreography without “feeling the reasons for what I’m doing”. It’s an explanation, perhaps, for his desire to keep his demons close, as the touchstone of his artistic conscience; also, perhaps, for why he’s so wary of allowing himself to create a perfectly polished product.

On one level Shechter can be a consummate showman. He has a rare talent for channelling raw dance energy into patterns of shimmering, rhythmic intricacy; the knotted, gnarly grace of his signature style is purely his own. When his 2010 work Political Mother was staged in an expanded “choreographer’s cut” at the Brixton Academy in London, the event was more like a rock concert than a contemporary dance show, holding its audience rapt.

Yet so often Shechter mires his choreography in grooves of needless repetition, introducing material that seems wilfully obtuse. And with Grand Finale he is no less contrary. Sections of this new work are both superbly achieved and movingly personal, as if he is finally giving himself permission to enjoy his own talent. But others are frustratingly overlong and misshapen, as if he fears committing himself to a final edit.

The curtain rises to a sense of bleakly elegiac beauty as a sextet of classical musicians play in the shadow of a huge black slab, the tombstone perhaps of a dying world. As 10 dancers emerge from the darkness they look like a scattering of survivors – bodies hunched, hands raised in pleading or surrender.

What follows may be a flashback to the preceding disaster. As the sextet play Franz Lehár and Tchaikovsky against the thrash and howl of Shechter’s own recorded, electronic score, they look like the band of the Titanic, heroically making music as the ship goes down. The dancers meanwhile start to party, the choreography flickering, flashing and glinting with a hectic edge. But threat and violence start to invade the stage. Mid-movement the dancers’ mouths gape open in silent screams; bodies fall lifeless to the floor to be dragged across the stage or propped up, awkwardly, by their partners. At moments, the sliding panels of Tom Scutt’s set squeeze the choreography into frighteningly claustrophobic spaces. When the stage falls still and the dancers quietly sing together, it seems as through the end is very near.

There is nothing as direct as narrative, however, and as striking as the imagery is and as superb as the performances are, the choreography seems to drift and meander through the long 55 minutes of its opening half. A noticeable number of people leave in the interval, assuming they’ve seen all there is to see.

Yet in the second half, Shechter concentrates his focus. Much of the movement material is repeated but the band are now playing in a raucous style and the dancers are liberated into a wilder, freer energy, as if laughing in the face of disaster. When the work winds its way back to the very first elegiac image, the band are no longer playing on an empty stage. The dancers are now spotlit in quietly human vignettes, kissing, holding each other, praying. If the world is dicing with death, Shechter chooses to react with a glimmer of optimism.

With so many fine elements – music, staging, performance and a hard-won lightness of tone – Grand Finale ranks among Shechter’s most sophisticated creations. Some sympathetic and stringent editing could have made it his best.

At Sadler’s Wells, London, until 16 September. Box office: 020-7863 8000.

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