Although Uprising, Hofesh Shechter’s smoky, shadowy study in male camaraderie on the verge of violence, premiered in 2006, it was eerily relevant when Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performed it at the opening of its recent winter season. That same day, a grand jury had failed to indict a police officer in the death of Eric Garner, sparking a new round of public rage around issues of power and racial inequality. Now here was a group of African-American men expressing that unrest onstage through Shechter’s charged choreography, complete with a chillingly prescient chokehold. “It wasn’t lost on me,” says Robert Battle, Ailey’s artistic director, of the piece’s imagery. “It forces you to think.” However unintended, the connection underscored the sense that Shechter’s work somehow captures a certain current mood.
That thrilling urgency and unsettling relevance helps explain how the 39-year-old has managed to catapult into an elite club of highly in-demand international choreographers in less than a decade. This year alone, Shechter premiered his first work for The Royal Ballet, will make his choreographic Broadway debut with Fiddler on the Roof and is working on another as-yet-unannounced high-profile collaboration, in addition to a triple bill of new work for his own company. For all his devoted followers, though, Shechter has detractors, too. His loud, large-scale productions can feel more rock concert than dance event, and their amped-up volume either ignites or offends you. The division can’t be explained purely in generational terms, though he does tend to attract younger, rowdier crowds. But there’s an anger and anti-authoritarian impulse that resonates with some and turns others off. For Shechter, it’s simply the way he makes sense of his surroundings. “It always comes from trying to understand the situation around me and how I understand the world,” he says of his thematic interests.
And Shechter hails from a rather turbulent corner of the world: He was born in Jerusalem, studied Israeli folk dance from a young age and performed for three and a half years with the Batsheva Dance Company under the guidance of Ohad Naharin (two in the junior troupe, while also fulfilling his compulsory military service). But before he was a dancer, Shechter was a musician, picking up piano at age 6. When he left Batsheva, seeking to re-engage with music, he began studying drums. After a stint in France, a relationship and a bandmate eventually pulled him to London. He didn’t mind leaving Israel: “It feels like a very small, narrow, intense place to be.”
After two years of dance and music gigs (both performing and teaching to make ends meet), he was restless and unsatisfied artistically. In 2003, he decided to go at it alone. “I told myself I don’t want to dance for anyone else anymore,” he says. “I wanted to have my own fantasies.” He gave himself a year to create, to see if he could make it work financially. “I remember the first days in the studio,” he recalls, “the feeling of dread on one hand and excitement on the other.” He took inspiration in something he learned from Naharin: “Everything is allowed.”
The duet that emerged from this period, Fragments, earned him notice at The Place, one of London’s main dance venues. Six months later, he won an award at a choreographic competition. Then came Uprising, which caught the eye of Alistair Spalding, chief executive and artistic director of Sadler’s Wells, the UK’s most prestigious contemporary dance center, which co-commissioned the equally moody follow-up In your rooms. Suddenly Shechter was one of the country’s most buzzed-about young dancemakers. Arts Council England invited him to form a company (which they still support, covering almost a quarter of his budget), and Spalding named him a Sadler’s Wells associate artist. All within three years.
“It’s been a pretty rapid rise,” admits Spalding, who says he was attracted to Shechter’s ambitious visions and untamed energy. “We wanted to give him the opportunity to fly, and he did.” For Shechter, the speed of his ascent was “phenomenal and weird,” he says. Though gratified by the attention, he adds, “I remember feeling careful because I could see the fragility of it.”
So far, there’s nothing fragile about the opportunities coming his way. Hofesh Shechter Company employs 16 full-time dancers, and nearly as much staff. (A junior company will soon perform his repertory, as well.) Several high-profile projects are taking him to new artistic territory, like the one with The Royal Ballet that premiered in March. As with much of his work, Shechter composed an original score for the project (in this case, with Nell Catchpole as a co-composer). Composing his own music, though exhausting and time consuming, is an integral part of his vision. “What I like about it is the ability to control a whole atmosphere, a whole situation, a flavor that comes from every direction,” he says.
Working with The Royal Ballet’s dancers has been a pleasant surprise. “I actually quite enjoy it,” he says, “which is rare. Sometimes with creation I can get into a dark place.” That darkness manifests in the finished products and reflects the struggle of an artist deeply ambivalent about the state of the world. “He’s quite a peaceful person, he’s relaxed, he’s funny, he’s joyful—but when he creates, what’s interesting is the conflict,” says Bruno Guillore, who has danced with Shechter for nine years and serves as the company’s associate artistic director. He points to Shechter’s 2013 work Sun. “When we started he wanted to do a light piece but he couldn’t. After a month and a half of fighting it, it became darker and darker. He said: ‘I have to do a piece I connect with and I don’t connect with happy people dancing around.’ ”
As the father of two young daughters, Shechter’s home life is often quite bright and playful, and he isn’t sure why he gravitates to turmoil in his work. He offers the following explanation: “I’m interested in looking at unsolved things, open questions, uncomfortable places,” he says. “It’s where I feel the most, it’s where something can evolve and move and heal.”
Despite the darkness, Shechter’s work isn’t cold. What distinguishes it from the polished, metallic rigor of some of his contemporaries is its cinematic sweep (Stanley Kubrick and Paul Thomas Anderson are influences), flawed humanity and deep emotional core. “He’s very connected to his emotions,” says Guillore, who points out that harmony between head, heart and body is what Shechter seeks in his dancers, as well. “He’s really looking for people who can express emotion through movement.”
For his most unexpected project this year, Shechter will give physical expression to the joy and anxiety of the Russian shtetl of Anatevka. Initially, Shechter balked when Fiddler on the Roof director Bartlett Sher approached him. “I told myself I’d never choreograph a musical,” he says, laughing. But when it turned out to be Fiddler, something shifted. “I thought, Yeah, that’s me.”
Shechter’s Jewish identity—more a personal reference point than a religious practice—is a subtle, recurring theme in his work. “There’s something very Jewish about Political Mother,” he says, referring to his 2010 blockbuster that has the feel of a political rally, a punk rock concert and a tribal ritual. The movement, as in much of his work, nods to his Israeli folk dance roots with group circles, deconstructed “grapevine” steps and trembling, outstretched arms as if beseeching God. Early in the process of working with The Royal Ballet, he says, “I wondered when was the last time they had a Jewish choreographer walking into that building?” He started to think about his own status as an immigrant from the Middle East, then about the contentious debate around immigration in the UK, particularly regarding its Muslim population. “It makes me feel like shaking the house a little bit,” he says.
That impulse may be shared by a number of choreographers, but few have managed to wrap the urge in such an appealing package that seduces, and unnerves, large audiences. “He doesn’t want us to feel too comfortable about this kind of enjoyment,” says Sadler’s Wells’ Spalding. “He wants there to be some grit in the oyster.”