Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, UK; October 30, 2013
Hofesh Shechter has become known for hard-hitting, bruising, punchy choreography that explores the disconnect between the individual and society and the power of the group over instinct and personal will. So the opening of “Sun” comes as a bit of a surprise. Before the curtain rises, a softly spoken Shechter assures us that ‘Everything is going to be just fine’, and to prove it, he’ll show us the end before the beginning, which he does. For good measure, he adds ‘No animals were harmed in the making of this piece.’ Cue laughter. Shechter does humour? Can this be right?
Well, not really. “Sun” maybe sunnier than his previous works, but the humour suggested by that opening is not very apparent in what follows. Of course, with sun comes shadow and Shechter’s familiar themes and darkness (figurative and literal) heavily underlay the piece.
The opening section includes dancers holding wooden cut-outs of sheep menaced by a similarly cut-out wolf. It’s mildly amusing for a second, but there is a darker point here. The predator and prey, oppression and fear idea is repeated with cut-outs of African tribesmen and a gun-toting Victorian soldier, and later a hoodie-wearing youth. Unfortunately, it’s all done in a really heavy handed and obvious manner. Just in case you don’t get it, a woman in the front row repeatedly stands up, points and screams. Once, I think I even heard he yell “behind you.”
In a later and rather realistic scene, a man is beaten up violently by others wielding sticks. At the end, to show that the victim is OK, he and his assaulters stand and bow before walking off. Another scene has Hannah Sheppard pointing a make believe rifle at the rest of the cast. I have no idea if Shechter watches Punch and Judy on Brighton seafront, but this and many of those scenes with the cut-outs have a sense of that about them. The violence and fear we see is not real.
What might be termed the more typically Shechter dance sections are vastly superior. The choreography here is complex and beautifully executed. There are still plenty of the usual hunched, shuffling, travelling sequences and Israeli folk dance references, but there are extra ingredients too, with Baroque dance, ballet and Lindy hop all also getting a look. As always, his sweeping ensemble sections have great power. They are almost all danced in unison, often pretty much on the spot. Some of the best parts involve expressive and persuasive small gestures, although I’m unconvinced that these always connect well with the wider theme. The action is interspersed by short moments of silence and stillness, the contrast with the previous action making them seem heavy and oppressive in themselves.
There is quite a lot of repetition. Scenes and phrases recur, and are sometimes left unfinished. It does have the effect of making us less sensitive to the violence or fear, which I guess is what Shechter is after, but it also gets tedious and makes us switch off in other ways. My mind certainly went walkabout.
As usual, most of the ramped up, theatre-shaking music is courtesy of Shechter himself, but there are also snatches of Wagner’s “Tannhäuser”, Sigur Ros and “Abide with me” on bagpipes. At one point the dancers even move in repetitive frenetic unison to Irving Berlin’s classic “Let’s face the music and dance”, a tune that reappears several times as though in some vicious loop.
The designs are outstanding. Christina Cunningham fills the stage with shabby characters: a Pierrot; a ringmaster cum master of ceremonies character in torn tuxedo; and others in creams, beiges and khakis that hail from a range of historical periods. They are set off perfectly by Merle Hensel’s beautiful curved set and Lee Curran’s lighting that combine to give the feel of being in an Eastern Mediterranean white stone church.
At the beginning, Shechter may have shown a snippet from the end, but as the audience discovers, it was not the end itself. In the final seconds, a body falls from above, a noose around its neck. So, all was not OK after all. ‘Can we believe anything we see or hear?’ seems to be the question. But if it was also an attempt to shock, it fails dismally.