Israeli Choreographer Called 'Freedom' Doesn't Want to Belong Anywhere

Hofesh Shechter, who is currently based in London, explains why he connects the music of Bach with terminally ill patients

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Hofesh Shecther. 'I was always obsessive with the idea of death. An ‘idea’ – it’s not an idea, it’s going to happen.'
Hofesh Shecther. 'I was always obsessive with the idea of death. An ‘idea’ – it’s not an idea, it’s going to happen.'Credit: ERIC FEFERBERG / AFP
Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich

The concert dance LIGHT, created by the Israeli-British choreographer Hofesh Shechter, is a work whose very description requires an explanation. It was created for the Royal Danish Opera during the turbulence of multiple COVID waves, and was first staged in May of last year.

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This work, choreographed to the divine music of Johann Sebastian Bach, incorporates interviews conducted by Shechter and his work partner, opera director John Fulljames, with terminally ill patients. These interviews with people who have been told they have two months to a year to live are interspersed between the dance segments. As death closes in, it seems as though the dance rises up and takes off; it becomes lighter, fuller of the energy of life.

“I’m a superstitious person,” Shechter admits in an interview, a moment after explaining the work with total nonchalance. “So for a moment there I thought to myself: ‘This is what I work with now. Maybe I’ll catch something? Maybe something in this energy of death will infect me?’ Ultimately, there was something very stimulating about it, very vibrant and invigorating to live life, to focus. Dancing to this subject is one of the better ways to deal with it. It’s scary.”

Hofesh Shecther. 'I’m a superstitious person.'Credit: Hugo Glendinning

Was it a coincidence that you created this work during such a troubling period?

“I was always obsessive with the idea of death. An ‘idea’ – it’s not an idea, it’s going to happen. But I remember myself at the age of six or seven just thinking about it constantly: what happens when I die? What was I before I lived this life? Was I once dead? So in this work, we wanted to create something that is connected to the present, to our lives now.

'My grandparents are from Germany. My other grandfather is from Romania. Also, another grandmother was a descendant of seven generations in Ukraine. What exactly makes me an Israeli?'

"We started to talk about the idea, to process something that has to do with our lives; something that people are afraid to deal with, yet are still constantly engaged with. We both love Bach a lot, and he also was obsessed with death. For him, as a very religious person, death was something transcendent, a moment to wait for. Accordingly, his music is divine, beyond life. That’s how it came about, a celebration of life in which death is a reminder and a remembrance. We will all die, only who knows when. People who are open to this remembrance experience such an awakening”.

Hofesh Shechter and Marion Bardeau in a scene from 'Rise.'Credit: Courtesy of Lev Cinemas

Terrible human vulnerability, not death, is the starting point for “Rise,” the new film by the French director Cedric Klapisch (“The Spanish Apartment,” “Back to Burgundy” and the television series “Call My Agent!”). In “Rise”, Shechter plays himself and along with his ensemble performs segments from “Political Mother,” a work he created 12 years ago.

In the film, which will premiere this Thursday, the protagonist, Elise (played by Marion Barbeau), undergoes an acute crisis. At the age of 27, she is at the peak of her professional life as a classical ballet dancer at the Paris Opera. But thanks to romantic turmoil, she is injured on stage and forced to stop dancing. It is just then, trying to make sense of the predicament and find some income and structure, when she is pulled back to the art form: this time, the loose and sweeping form of modern dance.

As in many of the Klapisch films, here too it is clear that he is a director who cherishes his young protagonists and characterizes gives them a beating heart and hopes for the future. Here is a fun and stimulating film, especially for dance lovers, and Shechter, playing himself, appears as a kind of great teacher who pointing in the right direction and allowing things to unfold.

He is seen almost as a guru, as indeed many choreographers are perceived by their ensembles; he is certainly seen as a revered figure who is leading a much wider, and much more captivating path than in the immediate context of performing art.

The trailer for 'Rise.'

“I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea of the guru. I’m looking for a simple connection with people. Paradoxically, that is exactly what a guru would say,” he says with a smile during a Zoom session from his home in London.

“My work became very successful all around the world and there is an expectation that when you meet me, you are going to experience something big. But what I love and what I am searching for are simple and human things. It’s not about status and greatness, those don’t interest me, and they also don’t motivate me. Magnitude and greatness do not impress me when I’m watching a dance. They don’t excite me. I’m looking for the humanity in it.

"I try to keep things simple, with simple connections with people. Also, the idea that I know more than my fellow dancers is awkward. My success is a connection of many things, also luck. I cannot say that I controlled what happened in my life or that I planned and made it happen. I worked and cared about the work, and to this day the most important thing for me is that there is an emotional thrust to my art. Besides, I don’t know how to answer the question, other than to say that in my ensemble I try to create a family-like atmosphere, both social and playful at the same time”.

It is clear that this is not a documentary. Yet when we look at groups of artists who work together, and especially concert-art dancers, we always find overwhelming energy. These are always groups of young and handsome people who have physical proximity because of their shared occupation, and who travel together around the world and share adventures.

The Gaultier dance company rehearses a work by Shechter.Credit: BERND WEISSBROD / dpa Picture-Al

“This is the Hollywood version of our life. And there is much truth to it. We travel and have fun, but it involves a lot of hard and gray work. Not everyone is friends and not everything is harmonious. In the atmosphere I try to create, the work is the most important thing. Yet there is also a playful atmosphere in the studio that enables us to become friends and be silly with each other, all while working hard. The work itself is the most important thing”.

Control freak

At the age of 47, after a childhood in Jerusalem where he trained in folk and modern dances; after performing with the Batsheva Dance Company and leaving for Europe, and after establishing his own troupe in 2008, Hofesh Shechter is considered one of the most interesting and active choreographers in Europe.

He has choreographed for the world’s leading ensembles, from the NDT dance company in the Netherlands to the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, and his works have been performed on the world’s greatest and most prestigious stages. He was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Choreography and was declared a Knight of the Order of the British Empire for his contribution to the culture and art of the kingdom. And beyond all these, there is his work, in its dynamic language in which the body, that is, the vigorous and powerful physicality that it can hold, has an extraordinary, intense place.

Shechter, who admits to having taken a step back in recent years and shares the creative process with fellow dancers, nonetheless has a totalistic approach to his art. “I’m a control freak, doing it all, the music, the choreography, all the movements. As far as I’m concerned, people are invited to my world and I’m telling them what to do.”

Cedric Kapisch, director of 'Rise.'Credit: STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN / AFP

The materials from which he draws his inspiration are sweeping, awe-inspiring, and full of feverish energy. You can sense it, especially in the work “Political Mother,” which brought Klapisch and Shechter together, after the former was hired to film the performance of the work by the Paris Opera Ballet. But Shechter, as he now reveals, had already deeply favored Klapisch’s work at that time.

“The first time I watched one of Cedric’s films, I was 23 or 24. It was ‘The Spanish Apartment,’ a film about a young man who travels to Barcelona for a year as an exchange student. It’s a light-hearted film, like many of his works, that has a lot of sense of humor and a lot of heart in it. I knew I liked his films. After he watched what I do we went for coffee and he told me that it was his dream of his to make a film about dancing and that he would like to do one with me.

"I said ‘great, let’s try.’ We agreed immediately, but we were both very busy. I’m always busy with the ensemble as we travel the world. In six months we are going back to Israel and it’s really hard to find the time to make such a film. If it weren’t for the COVID pandemic, there would probably be no film. Yet suddenly COVID happened, and Cedric asked me ‘what do we do?’ We sat at home doing nothing. Waiting for things to reopen.”

Director and choreographer Inbal Pinto.Credit: Orit Pnini

In the film, there is the theme of the vulnerability of the body and the temporality of a dancer’s life. The body decays quickly, it’s a tragedy that is pre-established in this occupation.

“This theme of the double life of the dancer, who continues until they can’t, is indeed a tragedy. And young dancers know perhaps that they will reach the age of 32 or 35 and that the end will come, and this end will be long before the end of their lives. Dancers are so fond of dancing that they do not know how to deal with it, and in fact do not deal with it, until the end arrives. Then what is the point of living your life if you are not living it the way you want to but out of some fear? It’s truly a beautiful tragedy. A lot of dancers are struggling with the idea of getting off stage. They live onstage and their lives include an element in which they are seen by others. They need this relationship, the approval and love of the audience.

"For dancers who stop performing, their world shrinks without that approval. I see dancers who have retired and become active on Instagram. They stopped dancing and from that moment on, they appeared on Instagram and get their approval there. Another layer of this tragedy is related to the maturity of dancers, which comes at a relatively older age. After the age of 30 there is something whole in the dancer, something absolute in the physicality and a combination of physical ability and expression. There are so many traits that come into balance when you look at that certain person and know that this is the last year or two. I have a dancer in my group, she arrived, she is mature, and that is also the sign of the end.”

You have been working outside of Israel for years now and are not supported by any Israeli organization. When I see this tough physicality in your works, it seems that this Israeli theme hunts you in your works.

“I grew up as a dancer and as a choreographer in the Batsheva Dance Company. That was my school and Ohad Naharin is a force that one cannot remain untouched by. His movements and choreography are so powerful. That was my school. Beyond Ohad, which was ithe main course,’ my time with Batsheva exposed me to giants of choreography such as William Forsythe, Wim Vandekeybus, and Inbal Pinto. It was very nourishing and that was the family I belonged to.

Ohad Naharin.Credit: Netflix

"Of course, I started with folk dances. I didn’t even know what modern forms were. I came across dance in the most Israeli way you might imagine, including the idea of dancing together. An idea that has great power, yet is also problematic. I know that these are the foundations from which I come. You used a good word for it. You said ‘it hunts you.' A work such as ‘Political Mother,’ which I did 12 years ago, is something that when I look at it now, I see that there is a preoccupation with the power and force that comes with being an Israeli; with folk dances and this national glue. This nationhood.”

Does this thought come to you as a driving force for the creative process or only in retrospect? And how busy are you thinking about it at all? Do you want to get rid of the political identity?

“It’s a work of dance. It actually has no subject. It’s all movement and energy, feelings and emotions. But can one really be free from what I described? What does it mean? Is one supportive of the context he or she was brought up in only because they are the origins? In a certain way, I came to hold the position of John Lennon. I don’t what to be involved. I want to be a citizen of the world.

“My grandparents are from Germany. My other grandfather is from Romania. Also, another grandmother was a descendant of seven generations in Ukraine. What exactly makes me an Israeli? By virtue of what? I don’t know. I want to believe that it is possible not to belong anywhere, but maybe it’s because I feel I don’t belong anyway. I was born and raised in a very broken family. My parents divorced and our family was so tiny. It was my dad, my brother and me. There were no huge family gatherings. We were in a bubble.

A scene from 'Rise.'Credit: Courtesy of Lev Cinemas

“I didn’t really feel like I belonged. Is it weird that I created my own tribe? That I gathered a group around me and that I describe the dancers as a kind of a family? It’s no coincidence. I have my family now and I guess that a psychologist will do a better job breaking the whole thing down than I would.”

It seems that you are breaking it down quite well.

“Yes. But I don’t really get it. Let’s say that I’m at peace with what happened and that I’m living and rolling with it. They named me Hofesh [Hebrew for “freedom”]. Can you imagine? What a task!”

As a “Gili” I agree that, sometimes, there are roles for children.

“Yes. Serious ones,” he laughs.

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