Thursday 31 October 2013

Sun – Sadler’s Wells

[an edited version of this piece was written for]

When Hofesh Shechter’s new choreography, Sun, opened at the Melbourne Festival recently, I posted my friend Jana Perkovic’s review for the Guardian on Twitter, hailing it as excellent. There followed an interesting exchange with Shechter’s lighting designer Lee Curran, who was annoyed by the way that the review “spoilered” various bits of the show.

I mention this because I ended up watching the show with half a mind on this idea of “spoiler-ing” dance moments and what one can write instead. I think I’ve concluded that I am going to spoiler the hell out the piece, but thought I would flag it up first.

For anyone who doesn’t want to know any of the stuff that happens, but does want some sort of indication of what I thought before I go off and intellectualise it to bits (the “consumer guide bit”, if you will), then I’d say go if you can. The piece is 1hr13 long, tickets are available for as little as £12 [at time of writing], and if you’ve never seen any of Shechter’s work before, a) this gives a pretty good impression what it’s like, and b) I think there’s a lot of it that is really great. Saying why it’s great (and the few bits with which I took issue), much less saying what it does and what I think it’s “about”; well, for that I think I need to explain what happens and to discuss it with concrete examples. So this review continues under the next picture...

Ironically, given the above, Sun opens with a spoiler. Over the blacked out stage, a (cute-accented, foreign, male) voice comes over the theatre’s PA welcoming us to the show and telling us that, so we can enjoy the rest of the show without worrying, they’re going to show us a bit from the end first, so we know it’s all going to be ok in the end. Which they then duly do.

The cleverness of this is that, as well as being quite funny, it immediately makes us think about the idea that whatever happens from the “real” beginning until this point at the end is going to perhaps involve some sort of situation snowballing out of control.

“Oh, and no animals were hurt in the making of this piece.” The voice ominously adds.

So we’ve already had a brief burst of the dancers – clad in light, colonial-looking clothing, with a couple of them maybe dressed as Pierrots. They look almost exactly like the cast of a production of The Tempest set in maybe 18th or 19th century Italy (a production which I’m pretty sure I must have seen at some point, though off-hand I can’t think where or when. But you know the sort of thing I mean, right?). They are dancing to the Arrival of the Guests at Wartburg from Wagner’s Tannhauser. We see maybe thirty seconds to a minute of this.

There is a black out (the first of several. And while I don’t hate them when they’re part of a complex lighting plan and choreography which really makes them work, they do still sap pace slightly).

When the lights return, there is a single large cardboard cut-out of a sheep centre stage. Slowly, gradually it is joined by other cardboard cut-out sheep. This sequence is repeated a few times across the show, so I couldn’t say with any certainty which time it is that the cardboard cut-out wolf first appears. A woman seated in the front row of the audience stands up and screams, pointing at the wolf cut-out.

Later, this sequence is repeated with a life-size card-board cut-out drawing of a native African (or possibly an aborigine – is that still a word we use? It sounds a bit racist now). The “wolf” to this “sheep” is a cardboard cut-out drawing of a typical white Victorian colonist.

Much later, a lone “hoodie” (looking like a cardboard cut-out by Banksy) makes an appearance, but this thought is not followed up. Similarly, close to the end, a lone banker on a mobile appears. We do not know if he is the natural predator of the hoodie or vice versa.

These faintly humorous sequences are interspersed with a lot more of the main event – namely the dancing. Shechter’s famous signature style is a kind of three-way collision between Jewish folk dancing, the more classical structures and shapes of ballet, and the sort of dancing to dance music that was popular when I was about fifteen – a sort of professional version of an SL2 video or old Prodigy videos (or maybe Hear The Drummer Get Wicked). It’s also reminiscent of the sort of dancing you maybe saw native Americans doing in some old and probably racist cowboys and “Indians” films.

The soundtrack to this tends to be new, original music by Shechter himself. The choreographer originally trained as a percussionist before switching to dance, which is immediately apparent from the enormous reliance placed on rhythm in the music (here, recorded, rather than live as it was in Political Mother). Both strings and guitars are pretty much also used as additional percussive, rhythmic elements much more than for their properties as vehicles for melody. In my (still as yet unpublished) review of Political Mother, I suggested that a vast majority of this music sounded a bit like a middle-eastern inflected version of Rage Against The Machine. Here, the use of the riff from RATM’s Bomb Track seems to confirm this diagnosis.

As suggested by the costumes and the cardboard cut-out pictures (even before the aborigine turns up 27 minutes in), the theme of the piece seems clearly to be that of colonialism. The cluster of dancers seems to variously take the roles of natives and then split to also enact invaders. There is a sense throughout of a growing history: a sense of the inexorable tide of colonialism. This is lent poignancy by the make-up of Shechter’s company being so remarkably international. Without this colonialism, we might reflect, would there ever have been such a diverse dance company. On the other hand, should we really view it as inevitable just because it did take place? The thesis being presented here (insofar as any dance really “presents a thesis” any more than it simply reflects a viewer’s prejudices or preoccupations) seemed to me to be suggesting that conquest and subjugation are (or at least were) a fairly essential and basic human condition. There is the thought that just as the native exercises dominion over the sheep that they find, then the colonialist whites simply applied the same policy to the indigenous peoples they “discovered”. That this is played out underscored by music played at real volume suggest that we should view this as a catastrophe (which, for the avoidance of doubt, I did anyway).

On a simplistic level, the fact that this apparent “march of history” culminates in the troupe goose-stepping (though possibly more Greek than German) and then the final reel, after a merry-go-round of sheeps, wolf, natives, colonials, hoodie and banker, dancing with apparent happiness to some Wagner... Well, you can infer what you like. There’s a darker moment before this where one of the dancers breaks off and screams into the auditorium “It’s behind you!” and then, “The wolf is behind you!”. Now, you could choose to interpret this as saying either that these bad old days are behind us. Or that it’s all just coiled like a spring and ready to pounce on us – that history is already ready to bite us again.

For my money, it reads as if Shechter is suggesting that while we all dance about in a slightly fluffy “post-ideological age”, his reassurance at the beginning, that it all ends fine was the heavily ironic statement I suspected from the get-go.

I should say that I was much more convinced by Sun than I was by the bombastic enormity of Political Mother, which I took to perhaps be saying a similar variety of things, but perhaps in a more non-commital way, and with more telegraphing. Where the name of a piece is “Political Mother” a choreographer perhaps wants to bring a bit more moral or ideological philosophy to the table than what felt like a sort of Russell Brand-y plague on all their houses. Here it felt like we the audience were expected to do a bit more “reading” to identify what it was that is being proposed. That said, I’m not entirely sure Shechter’s politics and my own entirely meet. If I were to try to explain the divergence, I might say it feels (and only *feels* and only to me) that he takes a slightly more detached, amused, ironic view of humanity and history – although the crimes perpetrated against the Jewish peoples dignifies that standpoint with a non-transferable depth and weight, so perhaps it’s not my place to judge it.

Less satisfactory, however, is a small blip of what Nicholas Ridout (talking about an entirely different dance piece by a totally separate choreographer) aptly described as “hateful gender essentialism”. That is to say, in Sun, there is a short sequence in which there are only women. And it is the only section where anyone removes any clothes. And it is the only section to feature any overt sexuality/sexualisation. I mean, the clothes the three women strip down to are functional pants and sports bras, and the sexuality exuded may just as well be their own as something dreamt in the mind of a male choreographer. But since there’s no comparable sequence with men or male sexuality it seems a point worth drawing attention to. Also, I had no idea how it fitted into the wider narrative. “There’s history, now, let’s see how the women are doing” it appeared to briefly suggest.

Against this perhaps nit-picking at the dramaturgy or “story”, I should offer a word about Lee Curran’s lighting. I should start by saying, occasional short Twitter conversations notwithstanding, I don’t know him at all; so no interest to declare.

One of the other reasons I never really got around to writing-up Political Mother (I will at some point now, I hope), was that I felt vaguely uneasy about the way I’d pretty much come out whistling the lighting design, as it were. I reckon Curran’s designs for both that and Sun rank in my top five favourite lighting designs ever. There’s a school of thought that says if an audience member notices the lighting then it has failed. Subscribers to that school of thought are, in short, dicks. It’s the same Mamet-y, Wesker-y sort of meglomaniacal thinking that says that anything at all on stage that “distracts” from The Writer’s “vision” must be eliminated. Wordy though they may be, one suspects they have all the visual sense of a Bee-Bat-Mole hybrid, and the talent for art appreciation of a traffic cone.

Here the stage is deliberately shrouded in haze. The haze gives form to every beam of light. This is lighting design made structural. And what a structure. Hung from the flies are 72 lightbulbs (twelve across, six deep) and above those ranks upon ranks of lanterns pointing straight down. Beyond these there are perhaps three bright spots at the front to illuminate faces downstage and perhaps some (maybe as few as two) lights at the side in a greenish colour to give body to the fog at various moments, but mostly the light is made of these straight down columns. Close to the end, there is also an effect not unlike Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project at the Tate Modern.

What’s interesting here, however, is how the lighting functions not only as a kind of second set – describing and creating new spaces and new ways of perceiving the stage and looking at the people on it. At times early on, you feel almost as if the dancers and the clothes they are wearing might be there largely to show off the lighting, to give the design a change to better accentuate new and different folds in cloth and textures of skin and hair. I am pretty sure I don’t really have the vocabulary or imagination yet to describe a “dramaturgy of lighting”, but it feels like such a thing, such a discssuion, is as central and crucial to the overall meaning of the piece as the movement of the dancers.


Richard Wagner – Tannhauser: Arrival of the Guests at Wartburg

Sigur Rós – Sigur 1 (a.k.a. Vaka)

Rage Against the Machine – Bombtrack

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