Under Hofesh's Roof

December 27, 2015

Hofesh Shechter marries the old and new in the Fiddler on the Roof revival.

Photo by Kyle Froman

Even if you didn’t know that a hot new choreographer has taken the reins at the latest Broadway revival of
Fiddler on the Roof
—the fifth in as many decades—the show’s movement-heavy marketing materials would tip you off. The television commercial is a montage of flailing limbs, swirling torsos and flying clothing, accompanied by the thumping rhythms of the song “Tradition.” The print ads feature an image of a speed-blurred, animated Tevye with one hand on a hip and the other in the air, as dynamic as the Nike swoosh. The artwork is even emblazoned in lights on the marquee of the Broadway Theatre, where the beloved show is likely to be dancing for a good long time. Tony-winning director Bartlett Sher, whose revivals of South Pacific and The King and I both honored and refreshed those classics, enlisted the iconoclastic Hofesh Shechter to help him do the same with Fiddler.

Photo by Kyle Froman

It’s been more than half a century since director/choreographer Jerome Robbins nurtured a mega-hit musical from the Yiddish tales
of Sholem Aleichem, and many things have changed. But one thing hasn’t: The newest Fiddler will still feature the iconic bottle dance. “I’m taking the lead from Mr. Robbins,” Shechter says. “Everything he did is great, but not everything is up-to-date.”

In general, productions of
are contractually required to reproduce the original choreography; but Shechter has been granted permission to make alterations in both the dance steps and the dance music. When asked if he will be doing the show-stopping Act One finale, in which bottles of wine sit precariously atop the traditional hats of men dancing at a Jewish wedding in Czarist Russia, he exclaims, “Oh, yeah”—in a tone that implies he would have to be a madman to leave it out. “But I’m trying to take it into my own world,” he adds. “I don’t think about it too much, to be honest. It’s not the kind of thing that I think is healthy to think about. I have this great group of dancers, and we’re doing something that happens now, in our world….Dance is energy, it is about sort of purifying an energy.”

Photo by Kyle Froman

The Israeli-born Shechter, descended from Eastern European Jews like those memorialized in
, knew the show only from the 1971 Norman Jewison film. Shechter never pictured himself choreographing a Broadway musical. In fact, choreography of any kind was in no sense an obvious path for him. Switching his allegiance between music and dance, performing with a youth folk dance group and the celebrated Batsheva Dance Company, moving among Israel, France and England, he was, he says, “like a lost particle. I was searching for what I actually wanted to do in this life.” With the Hofesh Shechter Company, which he formed in England in 2008, he managed to combine his love for music and for dancing—composing his own scores for his own choreography. Although Fiddler is not the first time he’s been constrained by a ready-made score, he admits that it presents him with “a very different challenge.” And it’s a challenge he welcomes. “When I put my own show together,” he says, “the responsibility is huge. The music, the concept, the structure, the content, the movement—it’s a lot. It’s kind of nice sometimes to have to work in a context where the structure and the music, the story and the content, are all there, and I’m trying to fit into it. From my world, but fit into it. It’s a different type of creation.”

The thread that runs through his freelance choreography projects, whether theater or opera, is his passion for music. “If I don’t have that connection,” he says, “then it’s not gonna work.” But with Fiddler, there were connections on other levels as well. First, of course, the score—“so beautiful, so good.” And, he adds, “I felt that something about my movement material really gels with it.” Shechter also connected with the narrative: “It’s a story about Jewish people that are not living in their own land,” he says, “so there was a lot of natural connection that I felt very quickly.” In addition, the show’s driving theme, the tension between generations, between tradition and innovation, resonated deeply for a choreographer who entered the dance world through the timeless conventions of folk dance only to land amid the upheaval of contemporary dance. As for his initial hesitation about Broadway, he says, he realized very quickly that if he was ever to do a musical, Fiddler had to be the one. “It took me not more than five seconds to say yes.”