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.”
For the past 3 years, choreographer Stephen Petronio has been reviving groundbreaking works of postmodern dance through his BLOODLINES project. This season, although his company will be performing a work by Merce Cunningham, his own choreography moves in a more luxurious direction. We stepped into the studio with Petronio and his dancers where they were busy creating a new work, Hardness 10, named for the categorization of diamonds.
'Tis the season to have some fun in the kitchen. If you want to get more creative than simply baking another pumpkin pie, try these Nutcracker-themed treats—created by and for dancers. These recipes from former Boston Ballet and Joffrey Ballet dancers were first published in Dance Magazine's December 1990 issue. Today, they're still guaranteed to turn any holiday party or dressing room into a true Land of the Sweets.
It's no secret that affording college is a challenge for many students. And for dancers, there are added complications, like the relative lack of merit scholarships that take artistic talent into consideration and the improbability of a stable salary to pay off loans post-graduation. But no matter your budget, a smart approach to the application process can help you focus less on money and more on your training.
According to Drexel University performing arts department head Miriam Giguere, figuring out the kind of financial assistance a school offers is just as important as navigating what kind of dance program you want. Here's how to incorporate finances into your decision-making process:
When dancers get injured, they often think they should eat less. The thought process goes something like, Since I'm not able to move as much as I usually do, I'm not burning enough calories to justify the portions I'm used to.
But the truth is, scaling back your meals could actually be detrimental to your healing process.
We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.
But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.
A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.
"Women are often presented as soft, fragile little creatures in ballet," says Léonore Baulac. "We're not." The Paris Opéra Ballet's newest female étoile is discussing her unease at some of the 19th-century narratives she portrays. "It was real acting," she says with a laugh of La Sylphide. "James kills her by taking away her wings, yet she tells him not to worry and goes to die elsewhere onstage!"
Sitting in the canteen of the Palais Garnier, Baulac embodies some of ballet's contradictions in the 21st century. With her fair curls and dainty features, she could easily pass for a little girl's fantasy princess. As Juliet, she exuded a girlish ardor that felt entirely natural; her reservations notwithstanding, her Sylphide was committed and carefully Romantic in style.
Yet the 27-year-old is no ingénue. At Garnier that day, her sweater reads "I can't believe I still have to protest this s**t," a feminist slogan; last winter, Baulac proudly wore it over a Kitri tutu on Instagram. And her repertoire is as thoroughly modern as she is offstage. A versatile performer even by Parisian standards, she is equally at home in Nutcracker as she is in the works of Pina Bausch and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.
With her fearless demeanor onstage, it's easy to see how Washington Ballet apprentice Sarah Steele attracted the keen eye of former American Ballet Theatre stars Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel. Promoted mid-season from the studio company by artistic director Kent, Steele was cast by Stiefel as the lead in Frontier, his world premiere for The Washington Ballet, this past spring. For the space-themed piece, Steele donned a black-and-white "space suit" onstage, exhibiting dual qualities of strength and grace. Most evocative about Steele's dancing might be her innate intelligence—she was accepted to Harvard on early admission, and plans to resume her studies there in the future. But first, she'll dance.
Lots of college groups do stepping—a form of body percussion based on slapping, tapping and stomping—but Step Afrika! is the first professional dance company to do it. They are currently at New York City's New Victory Theater, presenting The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence, a show based on the painting series by Harlem Renaissance artist Jacob Lawrence about The Great Migration of the 1900s, when millions of African Americans fled the Jim Crow South and traveled by train to the North for a better life. The Great Migration transformed the demographics of the country, and Jacob Lawrence's paintings became famous for their bold color and evocative power.
As we approach Thanksgiving, there's much to be grateful for. Perhaps one of the most important things on your list is dance. Whether you're a full-time company member, an aspiring professional, an audience member, or you simply delight in dancing in your daydreams, this art form is a creative escape.
That's not to say that being a dancer is easy: Pursuing such a competitive career can be heartbreaking, especially when you're faced with rejection.
La Folía, a short dance film by director Adam Grannick that was recently released online, echoes these sentiments in under 12 minutes.
It took two years of intense nutrition counseling and psychotherapy to pull me out of being anorexic. My problem now is that I've gained too much weight from eating normally. Is there no middle ground? I can't fit into my clothes, but I don't want to go back to being sick.
—Former Anorexic, Weston, CT