Hofesh Shechter is a rock star. I mean this kind of literally. A fierce drummer by background, he excels at yelling incoherent lyrics at a crowd standing hypnotized in adulation, like fans listening to a ballad at a rock concert.
Hofesh Shechter is also one of the dance world’s hottest choreographers, and that’s partly because of the above. His work is as much about the music and the interplay between sound and form as it is about the dance alone. The music he creates is often raw and bombastic, the dance sinuously connected to the beat and throb. Correspondingly, he is proud that Political Mother was described as an ‘audio visual marvel’ when it premiered in 2010.
Why all the noise in summer 2011 about a year-old show, then? Well, this version of Political Mother is billed as the ‘Choreographer’s Cut’, which signals that this version is even more Shechter than before. More dancers, more musicians, more more. It’s a spectacular sensory experience.
The show opens with three layers of those musicians being revealed in turn, in mesh-covered performing booths at the back of the stage – like a high-concept Celebrity Squares (Hollywood Squares for US readers). First, Bach-heavy classical strings lay out what might have been a serene representation of the beauty of the human soul, except for the intense volume and an intimation of crackling feedback adding edge to the music. Suddenly, the strings are submerged by the startling appearance of half-a-dozen pounding drums and guitars occupying a much larger space above them. One of them is wearing a safety belt, to prevent his thrashing of a 9 foot high drum resulting in an unchoreographed tumble off the platform. A few minutes later, three manic percussionists appear below the string players, adding a drumbeat of order and constraint at the bottom. There’s something vaguely Freudian about it: ego, id, superego. Hofesh appears throughout in different guises as a shouting dictator/lead singer figure, his intensity increasing as coherence decreases.
The dancers appear in tribes: colourful modern types, leathered soldiers, brown-clad underclass. There is a sense of building oppression – incoherent speeches are shouted into the crowd, peers fall under the spell of the dictator at differing rates, lovers fight and soothe in reaction to the stress of living in a politically straitjacketed state. Citizens try to enjoy lighter moments amidst the general fear and darkness; soldiers are as much under the cosh as anyone else. All of this is conveyed through moves that feel organic and realistic, based as they are on folk dance and familiar images of herd behaviour in crowds and rallies. Some moves seem reminiscent of club dancing; not surprising, I reflect, given that clubbing is after all a modern version of folk dance. In its group sequences, the company strikes a wonderful balance between looseness and tightness – you feel as if each dancer is breathing together but in their own way. Remembering the frustrations of my streetdance class earlier in the week, I have a fresh appreciation of what it takes to look that precise yet that casual.
There are a few special touches at the end, like the company performing the main motifs of the show in reverse to the sound of Joni Mitchell singing ‘Both Sides Now’ almost as if to walk the audience gently back into real life. The dancers stay in character as they take their initial bows, easing only gradually back to their real selves.
It’s a thrilling performance, and there is a largely thrilled, whooping audience – not least the groundlings who have been standing for an hour at the front of the stalls to add to the rock concert feel. To my mind, what could have increased its power still further would have been more of the kind of variation that happens at most good gigs – a bit more nuance, a few more ‘slow songs’ to counterpoint the fast and loud. If this piece seeks to conjure human experience in the face of extreme power, little moments of motherly tenderness might have taken a clearer place not just in the choreography but in the music, once the basic narrative of struggle had been established. And I did overhear the word ‘monotonous’ from a dissatisfied man on the way out. But as a heavy metal concert, I would say this was pretty unbeatable.
(The final show of the current run in London is on 16 July; then touring. Check out dates here: http://www.politicalmother.co.uk/)