At the End of All Things: Hofesh Shechter on His Latest Work
The first time I saw a Hofesh Shechter work, the usher handed me a program and a pair of earplugs as I walked up to the theater door. I was running late so I stuffed the tiny foam pieces in my pocket. I could not imagine in what universe I would ever need such things if I didn't even use them at rock concerts. And then I walked into the theater. I was pleasantly surprised to be accosted by the decibel level of what appeared to be a death metal band playing live for Shechter's Political Mother. I never used the earplugs, but perhaps the usual concert dance audience was grateful for the gesture.
In 2012, the show was a surprise even by the standards of Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival. In the years since, the Israeli choreographer has continued to shock and awe American audiences with his powerful, raw dance theater. His latest creation, Grand Finale, is a mature study in the contrasts and contradictions, the violence and the transcendence, that mark the modern human condition. I caught up with Shechter, now based in London, ahead of the work's appearance at BAM Next Wave November 9–11.
Grand Finale. Photo by Rahi Rezvani, Courtesy Danse Danse
What was your inspiration for Grand Finale? Is it purely abstract or is there a story in it for you?
I try to make work that is like a real night dream: You feel a lot of things and kind of know where you are are, and you kind of understand what is happening. It is an opportunity to express and digest a lot of emotions in the world today and in my life. And the responses are subjective; some people speak to me about the absolute despair in it and some speak of the hope they see, a shining star in the dark or a celebration of life. I think these two powers just exist together. There is a feeling of celebrating life regardless of how difficult it is, and, perhaps new to me, the feeling that there is beauty in the horrifying truth of our world, in what people are and how they behave. I was trying to make poetry with atrocities around me.
What is your creative process like when you are both composing and choreographing? Has this process changed over the last 10 years of your work?
I am learning each time. Normally I write the score and meet musicians near the end of the dance process. In the case of Grand Finale, I did a bit more of the early work with music and the musicians.
The score was not completed when I began with dancers. There was a lot of shifting, moving, readjusting. It is really a nonlinear, complex, messy experience.
When working with live musicians, I am not just telling them what to do, I am trying to find material to see how they flourish and connect with it. I want them to feel comfortable, to be able to improvise, like my dancers. This time, I wanted to discover new sounds and instruments and see how they could define the new material with dancers. The whole essence is human, very gentle, though of course the track has percussive energies, too. It was important to me that the band hold together the human spirit.
Grand Finale. Photo by Rahi Rezvani, Courtesy Danse Danse
What was the collaboration process like with your designers?
I try not to have literal conversations with designers. I want the design to kick us out of the literal world. The lighting designer Tom Visser was a great collaborator. It was wordless, and he stepped into my vision through doing and trying. For three days we just played a cold/hot game, getting warmer, colder, and then hot, and he read me through that process. His artistic vision is powerful and he has this ability to make the piece better without interrupting it.
And the walls in this show...
The movement of the walls was a very technical thing. My original idea was to shift them around the space but not have the audience see those movements. But then set designer Tom Scutt came up with walls that were so elegant and moved so smoothly, and had such artistic merit on their own, that we decided to make their movements visible. They appear solid but the world keeps shifting, and people are existing in the spaces in-between.
I am curious about if, and how, your military service [mandatory in Israel] informs your work? This is a rare thing in America, for a choreographer to also be a veteran.
Everything I have experienced goes into my work. I was a clerk in the military and I had special status as a dancer, but even though I was a "chocolate soldier" and not on the battlefield, I was still sucked into the system of the army. This hierarchic, fascistic system shocked me and was difficult for me to accept. It amplified a lot of my questions.
You are returning to New York after your Broadway choreographic debut with Fiddler on the Roof, for which you received a Tony nomination. Do you feel like there are expectations based on what has seemed to many like such rapid success?
I didn't even consider it. Maybe I am a bit like a child? I look at what is in front of me and I either get excited or afraid or nervous. Right now I am just excited to bring Grand Finale to audiences. We have had great experiences at BAM and I think the audience will connect to its power. If a different sort of audience is curious about Grand Finale because of Fiddler, great. I don't think they will be disappointed. For Broadway audiences to delve into a world that is different than musicals...that is exciting to me.
Grand Finale. Photo by Rahi Rezvani, Courtesy Danse Danse
You know Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo as the men who parody your favorite ballet variations—and make it look good. But there's more to the iconic troupe than meets the eye.
A new documentary, Rebels on Pointe, goes behind the scenes of the company, and it's full of juicy tidbits about what it's like to be a Trock. These were some of our favorite moments:
After 30 years of pioneering work in physically integrated dance, AXIS Dance Company co-founder Judith Smith has announced plans to retire from the Oakland, California, company. Throughout her tenure, she strived to get equal recognition for integrated dance and disabled dancers, commissioning work from high-profile choreographers like Bill T. Jones. Her efforts generated huge momentum for expanded training, choreography, education and advocacy for dancers with disabilities.
By phone from her home in Oakland, Smith reflected on how far the field has evolved since the early days of AXIS, and what's yet to be done.
You know that how you care for your body before curtain can impact your performance. But with so many factors to consider, it can be difficult to nail down an exact routine. How much rest is enough? How close to showtime should you eat? We asked the experts.
How do you make your athleisure collection stand out from the pack? Get the ultimate studio-to-street seal of approval by having dancers star in your campaign, of course.
For his second collaboration with activewear brand Carbon38, ready-to-wear designer Jonathan Simkhai traded in his usual top models like Gigi Hadid and Karlie Kloss for the original Hiplet dancers—and the resulting video is as cool as we'd expect from such a fierce collaboration.
Last week, we highlighted the deliberately, hysterically bad @biscuitballerina Instagram account, created by a then-mysterious dancer with a great sense of humor. This week, the artist behind @biscuitballerina—who turns out to be Royal Ballet of Flanders corps member Shelby Williams—got in touch with us to set the record straight about the intentions of those LOL-worthy posts.
Her photos and videos, with their exaggeratedly cringe-worthy technical flaws, are NOT meant to mock amateur dancers. Instead, Williams is actually hoping the account will help all dancers move past their shortcomings and accept themselves and their dancing.
Everyone knows that training is the cornerstone of a successful career in dance. But as a dance educator, I also take comfort in the fact that high-quality dance training helps shape students into genuinely good people (in addition to creating future artists, which is a wonderful goal in itself.) These are the lessons dance teaches that help make students into better humans:
Improvement Takes Commitment Over Time
In my tap courses at Cal State University, sometimes students are shocked when they can't learn something quickly. In today's world, we're used to getting fast results. You need an answer—Google it. You need to talk to someone—text them. The cooking channel wants your dinner to be easy, the physical trainer wants your workout to be five minutes, Rosetta Stone can have you speaking Mandarin in an hour.
Again and again, dance teaches me that when the filters fall away between people—when the boundaries of geography, religion and politics soften—the beginning and end of our relationships is always human.
In March, I traveled with Keigwin + Company to Cote D'Ivoire, Ethiopia and Tunisia, on a tour sponsored by the US State Department and facilitated by DanceMotion USA/Brooklyn Academy of Music. Our mission was cultural diplomacy: Simply, to share ourselves with diverse communities, to promote common understanding and friendships.
Our last stop was Tunisia. Until that point, we had mostly been learning varieties of traditional African dance, and sharing American modern dance. But Tunisia was different. The dancers already had a solid grasp of contemporary movement invention. Though we didn't speak the same language, we could make movement vocabulary with surprising ease. Everything about our backgrounds was different, but there was this special intersection through dance that seemed to present an open door to collaboration.
Photo by Todd Rosenberg, Courtesy Joffrey Ballet.
Christopher Wheeldon's new Nutcracker for the Joffrey Ballet was huge news when it premiered last winter. The choreographer shifted the setting from the home of a well-off German family to the Chicago world's fair, making the hero the young daughter of a working-class, Polish immigrant sculptress. This month, WTTW Chicago, the city's public broadcasting station, will premiere Making a New American Nutcracker, a new documentary showing how Wheeldon and his high-profile collaborators made the magic happen. Premieres on WTTW11 and wttw.com/watch on Nov. 16 before appearing on public television stations across the country. Check your local listings.
For most dancers, walking into the theater elicits a familiar emotion that's somewhere between the reverence of stepping into a chapel and the comfort of coming home. But each venue has its own aura, and can offer that something special that takes your performance to a new level. Six dancers share which theaters have transported them the most.
GLENN ALLEN SIMS
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Glenn Allen Sims in Alvin Ailey's Masekela Langage. Photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy AAADT
Favorite theater: Teatro Real in Madrid, Spain
Royal details: "The theater is gorgeous and ornate, with deep red upholstery and gold trim. There is a huge royal box in the center, which takes you back to when kings and queens were watching performances there."
Impressive facilities: Even the dressing rooms are a sight to see: Amenities for the dancers include large, carpeted rooms, and towel service.
The business side of dance can often fall second to the art. Contracts, which usually appear after you've done the hard work of securing a job, can seem like an inconsequential afterthought. You might decide to simply sign without reading the terms—or be understandably confused by all the legalese.
Ultimately, though, contracts can play an important part in setting the expectations for your job. A basic understanding of the legal terms you might see can go a long way in making sure that signing is a positive step toward growing your career.