Sadler’s Wells, London
September 21, 2015
Over the years Hofesh Shechter has developed a reputation for loud, visceral, thrilling, somewhat anarchic dance brim full of force and power. Political Mother, and even more so Political Mother: The Choreographer’s Cut, part dance concert, part rock concert, was accessible spectacle like no other. Although this barbarians trilogy occasionally suggests it might be heading in that direction, much of the evening turns out to be rather harder work.
In Part I, the barbarians in love, Shechter takes formal, sometimes quite classical moments and patterns and cuts them up. Again and again, formal, group unison sections collapse into ragged free-form dance in what seems to be an attempt to break free of any sense of structure. The music frequently does likewise, Shechter mixing François Couperin with his own heavy beat electronica.
The six dancers, all in white lope, around without much in the way of meaning or intent. Before too long, actress Natascha McElhone fills the theatre with her best HAL-like computer voice and suggests a few clues. “I am you. You are me. You are not alone,” she says. Like well-drilled soldiers the dancers bark in reply, “We are not alone.” Before too long, the McElhone engages in a conversation with Shechter. “Why did you do it, Hofesh?” By now this was becoming a very pertinent question. Shechter explains he is looking for a thrill and his dance is about innocence and love and their complications. Hmmm. The conversation is mildly entertaining, though. At one point Shechter asks if there is a psychiatrist in the audience, and suggests that the dance is all coming from the “mess” inside his head.
The dance may lack punch, but lighting throughout the part is downright special. Of the usual but highly-effective Shechter rock concert variety, it’s changed in such a way that the dancers seem to appear from nowhere, and disappear just as easily. The dance leaves one cold, though; that is when the cast are actually moving, because there is a lot of just standing around. Even the final striking image of six golden-lit (and very tastefully lit) naked bodies can’t save it.
If confirmation that the barbarians in love is a reflection of what’s inside Shechter’s head were needed, perhaps the title of Part II, tHE bAD (try the capitals only), confirms it. Now the six dancers in white are five in metallic gold one-piece neck-to-toe suits. Again, the theme seems to be order into disorder. There’s one sit-up and take note moment when Schechter does court dance, but as scenes come and most miss the target. Even an attempt to get the audience clapping went down like a lead balloon. One man did get as far as putting his hands together above his head, until the awful reality dawned on him that he was the only one.
The title of Part III, Two completely different angles of the same fucking thing, pretty much summed up the evening so far. Here, though, barbarians takes a turn for the better.
A duet between Bruno Guillore in lederhosen (quite why is another very good question; there is no hint) and Winifred Burnet-Smith is full of simple back and forth step-digs, that start humorous yet quickly take on a strangely worrying sense. There’s a sense that Shechter is representing the stagnation that can so easily find its way into life and relationships (his with dance, perhaps?). When they are joined by the dancers from the first two parts, the sense is magnified. When they all join in for the closing dance, back to those repetitive step-digs, the message seems to be that there is no escape.
barbarians is challenging in so many ways. In a way, it also seems to be Shechter challenging himself to be different, searching for answers, but never really finding them. Eventually, he draws you in, and the final twenty minutes or so is fascinating. It’s just a shame it takes an hour or more to get there.