Friday 12 February 2016

Barbarians – HOME, Manchester

[seen 30/01/16]

Hofesh Shechter is now a phenomenon. That’s a given. There was a cross-London festival of his work. His name manages to sell out shows at the Brixton Academy. There aren’t many choreographers who could do that. Even fewer of them are based in the UK. There’s no disputing the quality or ambition of the work. With Political Mother and Sun Shechter redrew the boundaries of what a “dance show” could be; bigger, louder, more live, rockier. More bombastic than anything before.

Barbarians is a much smaller show (despite being longer), but it also feels like an evolution. A slight evolution, granted. Shechter’s trademark post-Gaga (the dance-language, not the singer) moves mixed with Israeli folk dance and drum’n’bass nightclubs still dominates. But, where last year’s miniature, Untouchable, with the Royal Ballet felt like his most dramatically achieved piece so far, Barbarians seems more uneven.

Actually, it’s a fine example of more being less. The first “half” – up to the first interval (there’s a second pause between parts two and three) – was brilliant. Not unreserveredly so, but it was a joy. Inventive, intricate, playful and intelligent. Corridors of light move across the stage, dancers flit in and out of light and shadow. Trademark smoke/haze make beams solid, and prickly baroque music mingles with throbbing drums’n’bass. Shechter’s own voice speaks to the the piece over the PA, asking it/himself what on earth it’s about. His conclusion – that it’s a 40-year-old man’s musings on love felt way off-beam and disingenuous to this 40-year-old male critic, but lying or being wrong about your own work is an artist’s privilege, I guess.

The remaining two parts felt less inventive, less charming, and – interestingly – more “outward-facing”, but less narrative-led. At a couple of points in part two (five dancers in skin-tight gold lamé jumpsuits) it occurred to me that moments were almost like a kind of pop concert than a dance show. This actually made me like it more, as it was such an odd thing to see in a dance show.

The last piece *was* more narrative-y, actually, and opened with a bloke in lederhosen and one of those alpine/Austrian hats and a woman whom we could read as his wife, or daughter, or even mother at a pinch. Their relationship *seems* to be an abusive one – although so much of dance can be read that way that maybe I’ve just got a bad old literalist theatre-brain. I’m not exactly what happened in their story, or why the bloke was Austrian/Bavarian/whatever. One could speculate, but I’m sure it would lead to some particularly crappy assumptions based on nationality and history that nobody really wants. Least of all me. So, yes, maybe I was actively resisting the blindingly obvious at this stage.

So, yes. I was bloody pleased to have been given the opportunity to see it. And, as the first thing I saw in a theatre in Manchester in 2016, it certainly felt like it was giving a few cobwebs a much-needed kicked (see, Unsent Postcards, passim). If only it felt incumbent on theatre to try to be this inventive, every time there was a new show on...

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