When the Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter moved to London in 2002, he thought he could leave his past behind. But no luck: “In the back of the mind of the audience, they know I’m Israeli,” Shechter said in a recent interview. “I feel that this is how people look at me.”
More troubling than having his work defined by his nationality, he feels, is the fact, as he sees it, that being Israeli and being Jewish are too easily conflated: “It’s a very interesting, conflicted way the world sees Jews,” he went on. “People [in England] refer to me as Jewish rather than Israeli. There’s this pigeonhole, this file that says ‘Jewish’ on it.”
He was quick to say that this did not harm his success — indeed, he’s been awarded some of England’s most prestigious dance honors in recent years — but that “there is this kind of tension. … It’s weird.”
So now, he shrugs, he is even toying with the audience’s perceptions of him. His 2008 piece, “The Fools,” which makes its New York debut this week with the Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, suggests, but may or may not reference, the Jewish shtetl. He’s given past works names like “Political Mother” and “Uprising” that beg you to ask about his Israeli roots, too.
But for the most part, he says the names he give his works are just a ruse. “I saw that I was pissing off the audience” when giving suggestive names, he said. “It was sort of like the rabbit hole in ‘Alice in Wonderland’: should I tumble down there or not?”
Shechter, 35, admits that the country he grew up in affects his choreography. The influence of Ohad Naharin, the pioneering director of Batsheva Dance Company, where Shechter began his dancing career in the 1990s, only compounds the Israeli influence on his work. Naharin has often said how Israel’s own harsh realities influence Batsheva’s style.
But Shechter has begun to develop his own aesthetic — one even more intense than Naharin’s. His work has a saturnine, machine-like severity that evokes dystopian action films. Bodies jerk, slap the floor and sprint, sometimes in isolation, often in sync. Electro-rock scores that Shechter usually composes himself — he quit Batsheva to briefly play, in a rock band — lend his work a strikingly current feel, too.
As The New York Times dance critic Roslyn Sulcas wrote in 2008 of one of his rare American appearances: “The fragmented, rich, disordered world [that Shechter’s works] show is the one we live in now.”
The relevance of his work also caught the attention of Cedar Lake’s artistic director, Benoit-Swan Pouffer. “A friend of mine said you have to check out this new choreographer,” Pouffer said in an interview. “He’s amazing.”
Pouffer first heard about Shechter not long after his 2007 piece, “In Your Rooms,” won England’s prestigious Critics Circle Award for Best Choreography in modern dance. A year later, Shechter formed his own troupe, the Hofesh Shechter Company, which Pouffer caught at an Amsterdam dance festival that year.
“It [was] very visceral, full of energy,” Pouffer recalled. “He’s creating a whole universe, his own world.”
Pouffer asked if Shechter would stage a dance for Cedar Lake, which Shechter immediately accepted. Since Cedar Lake’s founding in 2003, the company has become something of a dance world lorelei, seducing audiences and choreographers alike with its stable of hip, young and sophisticated artists.
Shechter and the company meshed perfectly, said Pouffer. “We understood where he comes from. His work is very organic, but also very physical; it’s something we do at Cedar Lake so it was a real match.”
Having orgininally featured eight dancers from the Bern Ballet in 2008, “The Fools” was significantly reworked for the company for Cedar Lake. The new version features 14 dancers, half of whom act as shadows to the others. Shadow dancers perform near the back, crouched in dark crevasses carved out by piercing white lights. The other seven dance near the front of the stage, mostly in bent-over positions that suggest ghoulish fools.
“It was not very easy in the beginning,” said Manuel Vignoulle, a Cedar Lake dancer. Most of the dancers have been trained in ballet, where being upright is key, so spending so much
time hunched over was difficult. But Shechter spent three weeks training the dancers, in addition to another three weeks led by
an assistant. And it seemed to pay off.
“It was really intense,” said Vignoulle. “[Shechter] was always trying to [get us] deeper in a position, deeper into a crouch … Everyone had to connect to his inner fool.”
Shechter said he was drawn to the fool as a central motif because fools often subvert the normal order. In traditional folklore, the fool is usually perceived as being ignorant, but often proves wiser. “It’s not always clear who has the power” at the end of fool stories, Shechter said, and he liked that perfidious charm.
He added that Yiddish folktales lit his imagination, but obvious allusions to the shtetl were merely accidental.
In any event, he had already made a work that explicitly deals with his Jewish roots: “Ten Plagues.” The work had its premiere in London in 2008, during Passover, and was inspired by the Hebrew Bible.
But it was not a celebration of the religious holiday — quite the contrary. It was meant to challenge Jews’ embrace of the angry, tendentious and vengeful God of the Passover story.
“We glorify God for punishing other people who are not Jews,” Shechter told London’s Jewish Chronicle. “The idea that God differentiated between his sons, whether they are Jewish or Egyptian, is interesting to me to think people believe that.”
Shechter can be just as scathing of other people’s pieties, too. When asked about his strong criticisms of Israel, which were reported in The Guardian last year, he said he stood by his words. But he felt the paper had used him to merely defend its own biases.
“It frustrated me a little bit,” he said. “I’m always really worried about taking sides… But I do find that the British papers and media can be very anti-Israel. … My interpretation is that it’s kind of a guilt trip. They need something to fight for. But when I ask them about Ireland, they fall silent.”
Shechter makes it clear that he prefers the introspective world of dance to the hostility of politics. “When I walk into the studio,” he said. “I don’t think about politics. … The first thing I think about is my body. I’m actually trying to connect to my emotions. It’s not important for me to connect to a specific time or place — Israel or anywhere else. I’m trying,” he added, “to connect to being human.”
Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet performs at The Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Ave., from Oct. 26 to Nov. 7. Hofesh Shechter’s “The Fools” appears only on select nights. Call for more details. (212) 242-0800. $10-$59.