A wild waltz for the end of time

The choreographer squares up to our political anxieties – and his own demons – with grace and the defiant spirit of the band who played on the Titanic

Grand Finale is as apocalyptic a work as Hofesh Shechter has ever made. Squaring up to the precariousness of our world, the political and ecological disasters we’ve created for ourselves, it’s a work fraught with violence, dread and a manic kind of defiance. This is Shechter’s dance around the abyss, his waltz for the end of time. Yet as darkly dystopian as its premise may be, Grand Finale is lit with a curious optimism, as if the choreographer, in facing up to our terrifying zeitgeist, has also been able to exorcise some of his own private demons.

Those demons have long been familiar to British dance audiences. Early works such as Uprising were fuelled by Shechter’s conflicted attitudes to his homeland, Israel, the intoxicating earthiness of the movement in tension with the choreography’s brutal, almost militarised floor patterns. In The Art of Not Looking Back, he dwelt on the pain of his mother leaving his family when he was young. In Sun, a disconcerting mix of pastoral prettiness and anarchy nagged away at the imponderable issue of how to justify art in a disintegrating world. The sometimes self-sabotaging elements of banality in Barbarians spoke of Shechter’s need to force himself outside his creative comfort zone.

A wild waltz for the end of time... Grand Finale ranks among Shechter's most sophisticated creations. ★★★★

As he once said, he has always been terrified of making choreography without “feeling the reasons for what I’m doing”. It’s an explanation, perhaps, for his desire to keep his demons close, as the touchstone of his artistic conscience; also, perhaps, for why he’s so wary of allowing himself to create a perfectly polished product.

On one level Shechter can be a consummate showman. He has a rare talent for channelling raw dance energy into patterns of shimmering, rhythmic intricacy; the knotted, gnarly grace of his signature style is purely his own. When his 2010 work Political Mother was staged in an expanded “choreographer’s cut” at the Brixton Academy in London, the event was more like a rock concert than a contemporary dance show, holding its audience rapt.

There is nothing as direct as narrative, however, and as striking as the imagery is and as superb as the performances are, the choreography seems to drift and meander through the long 55 minutes of its opening half. A noticeable number of people leave in the interval, assuming they’ve seen all there is to see.

Yet in the second half, Shechter concentrates his focus. Much of the movement material is repeated but the band are now playing in a raucous style and the dancers are liberated into a wilder, freer energy, as if laughing in the face of disaster. When the work winds its way back to the very first elegiac image, the band are no longer playing on an empty stage. The dancers are now spotlit in quietly human vignettes, kissing, holding each other, praying. If the world is dicing with death, Shechter chooses to react with a glimmer of optimism.

With so many fine elements – music, staging, performance and a hard-won lightness of tone – Grand Finale ranks among Shechter’s most sophisticated creations. Some sympathetic and stringent editing could have made it his best.

The review was first published in THE GUARDIAN    

Grand Finale, 24.–26. november

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