With presidential politicking dominating the zeitgeist south of the border and assorted tomfoolery by assorted levels of government in the news closer to home, political machinery is much in evidence these days. Timely then the arrival of UK-based choreographer and composer Hofesh Schechter’s Political Mother, a scathing dance depiction of human society and the love/hate relationship it has with the political mechanisms it creates. The show is an in-your-face and unusual blend of irony and menace and has earned the company raves as it tours the world.
In the opening scene of Political Mother, Schechter tips his hand. With the title of the work projected overhead, a knight in leather armour slowly draws his sword. And then falls on it. A few shocked giggles ripple through the audience and are quickly stifled as he noisily expires. Fade to black. Hold.
Schechter has no problem making his audience wait for what comes next: a duet that introduces a slouchy, slinky, vaguely simian movement vocabulary, a row of drummers that keep the beat with military precision as a figure yells into a microphone from high on a pedestal, his voice distorted, his polemic indecipherable. The latter morphs into a backdrop featuring rock guitars and a shrieking vocalist. These twin symbols of influence and power – the civic and the secular – alternate throughout the work, overlooking a sea of thrashing, stumbling humanity.
The twelve dancers in the company embody his ideas with mostly simple steps drawn from Schechter’s background in folk dance and as a dancer with Ohad Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company in Israel, where he grew up. Certain gestures recur throughout the work –- simple spins with arms up, whole body convulsions, a crossover step performed in a circle, a kind of knees-out low jump/shuffle with both arms raised straight up – the kind of move a non-dancer might make when asked to imitate a gorilla. The rhythm and emphasis of the movement is often unexpected and occasionally it’s performed double time. It looks far more casual than it is – this is a loosely fluid movement that allows for anger, despair, hesitation, aggression, non-engagement, tenderness, intensity, trance, ecstasy and even goofiness, whatever the dancer needs to bring to the stage at any given moment.
Yet dance is only one element in this assault of a show. It is a carefully crafted series of moving tableaux that owe much of their power to bold visual and aural decisions. Much has been made of the loudness of Schechter’s score (he has moonlighted as a drummer in a rock band) and for sure when the guitars and drums are in full effect, it’s loud. But I’m enchanted by his ease with the vocabularies of contemporary popular culture. It’s a relief to drink in the massive drumbeats and guitar licks sourced from diverse parts of the world as they drive the dance. Similarly, it’s exhilarating to watch a dance work that confidently nods at cinema in its staging, employing “jump cuts” and “fades” and physical iconography drawn from films such as Metropolis and Triumph of the Will to reference our collective cultural catalogue. If the choreography itself doesn’t quite keep up (I greedily wanted yet more depth and range), it definitely has its own integrity. The work feels longer than the content Schechter has created requires – it noticeably loses momentum in a couple of places – but overall Political Mother is a convincing and oddly entertaining theatrical indictment of political indoctrination and manipulation.
That message is surely bleak, but Schechter cleverly infuses his work with moments of strange and jarring beauty. In one section the entire company performs spinning steps together, arms raised in submission, or is it supplication? As the music transitions from ear-splitting rock licks into a sublimely lovely Bach violin concerto and most of the dancers head for the wings, a quartet of soldiers in leather armour continue spinning in a kind of historical time line gone mad. For all the suffering, oppression and stupidity that make up the infinite loop of civilization, this persistent lyricism is also part of the human project, Schechter might be suggesting. As is dance itself.
The profound/funny statement ‘where there is pressure there is folk dance’ written in lights across the back wall of the stage near the end of the piece drives home the point: people dance for a reason, dance is both conformity and defiance and, perhaps, we dance when there is nothing left to be said or done.
A shorter version of this review appeared originally in NOW Magazine
Check out our video blog featuring Hofesh Shechter: