The Vancouver Playhouse, Vancouver – November 13, 2015
barbarians is Hofesh Shechter’s newest program for the Hofesh Shechter Company, comprised of three works created in 2014 and 2015. It’s one of the many presentations of Shechter’s work lately, that includes Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice, which he co-directed for the Royal Opera House, and choreography for Broadway’s new production of Fiddler On the Roof, debuting in December. Also, his apprentice company, Shechter Junior, has been touring deGeneration, which remounts his very first two works, Fragments (2003) and Cult (2004). In barbarians, Shechter’s retains his raw and punchy signature, and music and lighting design of great sensory effect. Yet, there’s a hint of self-reflective maturity here, perhaps marking this stage in Shechter’s life, as a father of two who has just turned 40.
In the barbarians in love (2014), seven dancers in white long-sleeves and pants went through poses like children learning by rote. Familiar classical melodies sounded as if they’d been churned out through a machine, and shared the sound space with electro-beats and a female robotic voice of commanding statements. The dancers expressed a common aesthetic, but were never precisely identical in form, which preserved their individual qualities in the performance. In the post-show salon, dancer Yeji Kim explained their rehearsal process – “He gives us a theme, and we respond with our physical expression of it. He doesn’t say much actually, or explain things. He just kinds of molds it from observation. He might give us specific prompts to bring out something he wants to see…For this piece, he asked us to think back to our childhood, of innocence, but discovering rules and structure. But, you know, I don’t really remember much from childhood,” she laughs, “so I related to this piece as an adult in our structured society, who missed that freedom of childhood.”
Shechter, however, did have much to say in a voiceover that took up the latter part of in love. He stammered hesitantly through a conversation with the robotic voice about the complexities of love, desire to find honesty and innocence, then the voice scolded him for self-indulgence – “you had to add yourself to the piece, didn’t you Hofesh?” Indeed, it seemed long and indulgent, though that might have been Shechter’s intended irony.
tHE bAD (2015) credits Shechter and five company dancers for the choreography and music. The piece was specifically created at night, as a way for the artists to disconnect with daily realities. It unfolded like a stream-of-consciousness after a night at the clubs, with an added peculiarity of gold bodysuits. Shechter showed-off a broad musical palette with a mash-up score that cut from break-beats to booming bass to Baroque strings, that sometimes cycled back on itself like déjà-vu. Five dancers grooving to the music seemed to be completely inside in their heads (the title of the piece might be read from its capital letters), until a transition to moments of absurdity – one girl crawled on her hands and knees while another girl rode on her back. They awakened to a self-conscious reality and suddenly seemed very uncomfortable in the gold bodysuits. After floundering in this state for a bit too long, the pace picked up an air of a slick commercial production. Attila Ronai flaunted entrechat jumps in the centre, then, to Bhangra-inspired beats, dancers called on the audience to clap their hands with them. Succumbing to transience once more, they turned back into their introverted state. When re-illuminated in silence, standing in a neat row, they glanced uncertainly at each other and took timid bows, as if at the sight of dawn, trying to make sense of the night before.
The program concluded with two completely different angles of the same fucking thing (2015), a duet of two founding members of the company, Winifred Brunet-Smith and Bruno Guillore, who is also the company’s associate artistic director. In the post-show salon, Brunet-Smith described the creation process – “Bruno and I have been working together for many years; we’ve developed a special connection. Hofesh just let us improvise to see what would come up, then put the parts together… It took us three weeks to make.” The ease of their partnership lent a richness to their intimate duet as a middle-aged couple, that began with a cautious slow-dance to a jazzy piano tune, then, unfurled into a physically-charged expression of argument. Whereas the dancers of the duet in Fragments (in a separate performance by Shechter Junior) expressed explosive, reactionary responses to one another, two completely has retained that energy, but each is more self-reflective. At the couple’s separation, Guillore, stripped of his lederhosen to his boxer-briefs, nudged self-consciously into the ensemble, unacknowledged by Brunet-Smith, now slow-stepping to the piano tune accompanied by three dancers from each of the first and second pieces in white or gold costumes.
In the program notes, Shechter described coming to a realisation after watching the first performance of barbarians, “…the first two pieces are the preparation. The duet is the reason for them to exist.” Though that could be seen quite literally, in the return of the dancers of the first two pieces and the progression from childhood to middle-age, the deeper connection between these works is up for interpretation. They do, however, show a maturity in the characters of Shechter’s world, and that concludes the program beautifully.