HOME, Thursday 28th January
Hofesh Shechter’s barbarians is a postmodern work in the strict sense. Its dance and music are constructed by bricolage and pastiche and these serve as the hyperactive, playful backdrop against which he explores anxieties about the possibilities of making art and particularly about the difficulty of depicting love. This intellectualism is not the same as abstracted and straight-faced seriousness, above all else Shechter’s work is fun and intensely bodily: dancers run around being silly, there are jokes, and the music is played so loud you can feel it coursing through your body, the bass vibrating your inner organs.
The first of the three pieces, though, the barbarians in love, exemplifies all these elements. The music is baroque but with so much bass and volume it is far away from the formal, courtly past it is associated with. Nonetheless, the dancing itself is simultaneously oddly formal and very loose: six dancers in plain, white tunic-type costumes split into groups and pairs, some will obsessively repeat gestures whilst others will run around them, hardly looking like they are dancing at all. At one point the dancing stops altogether, and the six figures stand there whilst a reassuring, slightly computerised voice enters into dialogue with the voice of Shechter himself, who desperately tries to claim that he is just trying to depict the innocent and complicated nature of love. This is a claim that is constantly undermined by the work itself.
The piece begins with the dancers appearing in fixed poses in a series of spotlights that imprison them and direct them around the stage; later they are directed by the computerised voice to chant in unison “WE ARE NOT ALONE”. It is reminiscent of Beckett’s disturbing late play, What When, where a loudhailer directs the stage lighting and four characters to torture each other, not only in the questions it raises about the relationship between the choreographer and the dancers on stage but also in the way that it is grimly funny. The love of the title is not the innocent concept Shechter claims it to be, but a question of control and isolation, not in an interpersonal sense, but in submission to a series of gestures and received ideas that are as interchangeable as the six dancers who never form romantic groupings. With this in mind, even the choreography that suggests freedom, the loose running around, the casually shaking bodies, are revealed to be strict formal poses. At the very end though, Shechter gives the dancers back their bodies as they file on stage naked and it is at this point that their subjectivity is returned to them, their bodies are their own, even in this dance that seems so controlled. In the chiaroscuro light I can see one dancer’s heart beating.
It is at this moment, for example, at the edge of culture, where nature seems to return, that the title barbarians starts to make sense. Barbarity marks the edges of culture, what stands beyond its limits, in Ancient Greek it meant illiterate people. Of course, this binary never holds, everything ‘outside culture’ is defined from within culture and is so a function of culture itself, and besides, often what is barbaric is frequently culture which isn’t recognised as such. Those naked bodies are just a cultural sign of freedom, they’re not really nature, they’re not really an escape from the strict cultural control of the choreographer.
In the second piece of the evening, tHE bAD, Shechter takes these concerns with the iconography and depiction of love and desire and turns them self-reflexively on dance itself. The capital letters in the title encourage one to speculate on acronyms, perhaps tHE bAD is the barbarians are dancing, but the capitals also spell out HEAD, a stupid joke about the fact that this time round the dancers are dressed entirely in gold, form-fitting body suits with only their heads emerging. The naked bodies that ended the previous piece are placed back into culture – the bodysuits are so tight they may as well be naked but they are dressed in clothes.
The gold suits and pounding combinations of dubstep and courtly Elizabethan music create an atmosphere of science fiction (as did the previous piece). Is this what nightclubs of the future look like? It’s thrilling in its physicality. Unlike barbarians in love bodies are in near-constant motion, switching between styles very rapidly, booty dancing gives way to a sort of robotic children’s game of Ring-A-Roses, children’s freedom comes under the direction of the puppet master, body parts that shouldn’t move independently do, like cyborgs, and in one mesmerising moment the dancers link arms, lined up in poses reminiscent of the subjects of the portraits of Hans Holbein, forming their hands into obscure allegorical gestures, to walk towards the audience to an Elizabethan dance.
This shamelessly repetitive bricolage of styles insists on the equivalence of different forms of culture but also their incompatibility. We know it’s all dancing but the different forms can only speak to each other because they are in a postmodern pastiche rather than their original settings. And again, desire returns. So many of these forms of dancing are courtship rituals, whether in the club or in the Elizabethan ballroom, and all of them are in thrall to the control of repertoires of gestures.
If the first two pieces seemed to rob the dancers of their specificity, draw attention to their dance as dance, and draw attention to the questions of desire, the third part, two completely different angles of the same fucking thing, suggests that it is the culmination of this project, marking the equivalence between each attempt to make statements on desire and dance in such a way as to render the concepts banal. This seems to be borne out by this final piece’s focus on a couple, in duet, which is far more sensual and conventionally romantic, but undercut by the dancers from the first two pieces periodically returning on stage to remind that this passionate representation is just another form from the received choices. It’s oddly disappointing though, perhaps because the piece seems to believe in its romance despite the challenge that the earlier two pieces have offered it; maybe Shechter is just an innocent romantic at heart. At times this is undercut. In a moment that is both unsettling and erotic the woman wraps her legs around the man’s head as though trying to smother him. And strangely, the man is wearing lederhosen, a decision that seems inexplicable, but perhaps conjures images of Nazism and another form of the control and regulation of bodies. Most of the time though, two completely different angles feels like it’s going through the motions of going through the motions, whereas the earlier two pieces presented the familiar in unsettling juxtapositions and mutated forms that demanded thought.