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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.
Uprising features a score by Shechter himself. Photo by Ben Rudick, Courtesy Hofesh Schecter Company.
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.”
Above: Shechter works with his company on Sun Dust, a compilation of sections cut from Sun as it grew into a darker piece. Photo by Victor Frankowski, Courtesy Hofesh Schecter Company.
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.
The Art of Not Looking Back. Photo by Dee Conway, Courtesy Hofesh Schecter Company.
“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.”
Political Mother. Photo by Tom Medwell, Courtesy Hofesh Schecter Company.
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.”
Sarah Haarmann stands out without trying to. There is a precision and lack of affectation in her dancing that is very Merce Cunningham. Her movement quality is sharp and clear; her stage presence utterly focused. It's no wonder she caught Mark Morris' eye. Even though she still considers herself "very much the new girl" at Mark Morris Dance Group (she became a full-time member in August 2017), in a recent performance of Layla and Majnun, Haarmann seemed completely in her element.
Company: Mark Morris Dance Group
Hometown: Macungie, Pennsylvania
Training: Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Performing Arts and Marymount Manhattan College
In 2012, freelance contemporary dancer Adrianne Chu made a major career change: She decided to try out for A Chorus Line. "Even though I didn't get the job, I felt like I was meant to do this," says Chu. So she started going to at least one musical theater audition every weekday, treating each as a learning experience. After several years of building up her resumé, Chu's practice paid off: She booked a starring role as Wendy in the first national tour of Finding Neverland.
Approaching auditions as learning opportunities, especially when you're trying to break into a different style or are new to the profession, can sharpen your skills while helping you avoid burnout. It also builds confidence for the auditions that matter most.
For many dancers, a "warmup" consists of sitting on the floor stretching their legs in various positions. But this strategy only reduces your muscles' ability to work properly—it negatively affects your strength, endurance, balance and speed for up to an hour.
Save your flexibility training for the end of the day. Instead, follow a warmup that will actually help prevent injury and improve your body's performance.
According to the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science, a smart warmup has four parts: "a gentle pulse-raising section, a joint mobilization section, a muscle lengthening section and a strength/balance building section."
It's easy to feel whiplashed thinking about everything Emma Portner has achieved in such a short amount of time. Last fall, the 23-year-old was the youngest woman ever to choreograph a West End production (it was based on Meat Loaf's greatest hits). This was, of course, after she already choreographed and starred in Justin Bieber's viral hit "Life is Worth Living," and before she charmed major media outlets when she secretly married actress Ellen Page. Now, she's L.A. Dance Project's first-ever artist in residence, and she's working on a commission for Toronto's Fall for Dance North Festival.
We caught up with her for our "Spotlight" series:
Last month, the International Association of Blacks in Dance's third annual ballet audition for women of color was expanded to include a separate audition for men.
The brainchild of Joan Myers Brown (founder of both Philadanco and IABD), the women's audition was created to specifically address the lack of black females in ballet. However, the success and attention that audition drew made the men feel left out, so IABD decided to give the men equal time this year.
Pina Bausch's unique form of German Tanztheater is known for raising questions. Amid water and soil, barstools and balloons, the late choreographer's work contains a distinct tinge of mystery and confrontation. Today, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch's dancers use questions as fuel for creativity. The company's most recent project introduced a new group of performers to the stage: local high school ninth-graders from the Gesamtschule Barmen in Wuppertal, Germany, in an original work-in-progress performance called Veränderung (Change).
Before she became the 20th century's most revered ballet pedagogue, Agrippina Vaganova was a frustrated ballerina. "I was not progressing and that was a terrible thing to realize," she wrote in a rough draft of her memoirs.
She retired from the Imperial Ballet stage in 1916, and for the next 30-plus years, devoted herself to creating a "science of ballet." Her new, dynamic teaching method produced stars like Rudolf Nureyev, Alla Osipenko, and Galina Ulanova and later Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. And her approach continues to influence how we think about ballet training to this day.
But is the ballet class due for an update? Demands and aesthetics have changed. So should the way dancers train change too?
I love being transgender. It's an important part of the story of why I choreograph. Although I loved dance from a very young age, I grew up never seeing a single person like me in dance. So how could I imagine a future for myself there?
The enormous barriers I had to overcome weren't internal: I didn't struggle with feelings of dysphoria, and I wasn't locked down by shame.
The dance community is heartbroken to learn that 14-year-olds Jaime Guttenberg and Cara Loughran were among the 17 people killed during the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.
Guttenberg was a talented competition dancer at Dance Theatre in Coconut Creek, FL, according to a report from Sun Sentinel. Dance Theatre owner Michelle McGrath Gerlick shared the below message on her Facebook page, encouraging dancers across the country to wear orange ribbons this weekend in honor of Guttenberg, whose favorite color was orange.
A statement released yesterday by New York City Ballet and School of American Ballet reported that an independent investigation was unable to corroborate allegations of harassment and abuse against former ballet master in chief Peter Martins, according to The New York Times. This marks the end of a two-month inquiry jointly launched by the two organizations in December following an anonymous letter detailing instances of harassment and violence.
The statement also included new policies for both the company and school to create safer, more respectful environments for the dancers, including hiring an independent vendor to handle employee complaints anonymously. These changes are being made despite the independent investigation, handled by outside counsel Barbara Hoey, purportedly finding no evidence of abuse.