Parisians with an appetite for contemporary dance have been lucky this Spring, with two opportunities to see the work of Hofesh Shechter, first at the Théâtre de la Ville with his junior company, and, from this week end, at the Palais Garnier. In between rehearsals for The Art of Not Looking Back, with the Paris Opera dancers, Bachtrack writer Laurine Mortha caught up with him. 

© Hugo Glendinning
© Hugo Glendinning

You have been very present on the Paris stages over the last few years, starting with your last creation Grand Finale, which premiered at the Parc de la Villette last June.

Hofesh Shechter: Yes, I have a long and cherished relationship with the Théâtre de la Ville. They took me under their wings around 2010 and since then we have developed a large audience in Paris. The Théâtre de la Ville also has partnerships with other theatres, such as the Parc de la Villette, where we performed Grand Finale last June.Grand Finale is a creation for 10 dancers and 6 musicians and La Grande Halle in the Parc de la Villette was a very exciting venue. It is basically a theatre built within a hangar, with a lot of daylight coming in. The atmosphere of the venue influences the way the audience behaves and experiences a show a lot: if you sit in a posh theatre then you behave in a certain way and if you’re in a rock’n’roll venue then you will behave in another way.

Show was performed at the Théâtre des Abbesses this April, by the junior company Shechter II. Could you tell us more about your Shechter II dancers?

HS: Yes, Shechter II, the young company, is composed of amazing energetic dancers. The idea behind Shechter II is to select young people at the end of their education and give them opportunities and professional experience over a year.

Competition to join must be strong...

HS: Yes, over a 1,000 dancers apply. We found a system where we manage to see everybody over 3 days of auditions. We make a first selection in half-an-hour long sessions where we see 40 dancers at once. Statistically, you could say that out of 1,000 people you will find eight amazing dancers, but, really we saw very interesting people.

Nederlands Dans Theater performing in <i>Clowns</i> © Rahi Rezvani
Nederlands Dans Theater performing in Clowns
© Rahi Rezvani

Why did you choose to adapt Clowns for them?

HS: I chose an existing work in order to have a solid base, but I also wanted to create with them, to give them the experience of the creative process and being with me in a studio. Clowns felt like the perfect piece for this as it is a very energetic work and it shows the euphoric power of youth. Clowns is a piece with which young people can connect, there is the sarcasm of it, the violence of it. A world is exploding around them. And it is a piece to show them off. Show [the adaptation of Clowns for the young company] is also a conflict between media and violence. In all social media – Twitter, Facebook – there is this idea that it’s all for show and that it’s all a bit of entertainment. That is why I like the name Show.

The Art of Not Looking Back will be performed soon at the Palais Garnier. What is it about and how was the collaboration with the Paris Opera Ballet?

HS: Aurélie [Dupont] came and asked me to collaborate with the Paris Opera. She was really open and said “whatever piece you feel will be right” and I chose this piece for female dancers, created in 2009. In a way, this piece was made to be difficult. I decided to be as honest as possible and something very raw came out. It represents women in a very powerful and animalistic way. I thought it would be interesting to do it with POB dancers and to do it at Garnier, to have something of a beast-like quality in this beautiful venue, something that interrupts the rhythm of the place. But at the same time, this piece is very human and deals with something that happened to me (my mum left when I was two years old) and that is bluntly exposed to the audience at the beginning of the piece. It puts the audience in a conflict because the piece is difficult to watch but it is also real and part of life. It is pathetic, weird and funny all at the same time. It also deals with the relationship between the creator and the created: I am the creation of my mother, this is my creation, the dancers are portraying my mum through my movements. There are many mirrors in the piece.

Dancers of the Hofesh Shechter company in <i>The Art of Not Looking Back</i> © Matthew Andrews
Dancers of the Hofesh Shechter company in The Art of Not Looking Back
© Matthew Andrews

We can often feel your presence on stage, through references to your personal experience or through the music where we sometimes hear your voice or your name. Were you inspired by Ohad Naharin in this process?  

HS: I worked with Ohad for a few years and I am very influenced by him. I feel that if I don’t put myself inside the piece, it is not really worth it. I need to put a piece of my heart in it otherwise it just becomes a mathematical exercise. As much as I love the mathematics of dance and working with timing, there must be something deeper which matters to me. It does not mean the work is about me – even if sometimes, it is, evidently. I think a personal work is also easier for the audience to relate to. Processing something personal also means processing something honest and emotional.

Your pieces often reflect violence, showing the brutal side of Humanity and a world which is often on the verge of collapsing. Why?

HS: There are two answers to this. First, there is violence in the world. Just go out in the streets and you will see the brutal nature of people, see the way they behave with each other, the way they drive, the way they walk and talk. You can see everywhere the fight for a place, for territory, for power. The second answer is the way in which I was traumatized experiencing life in Jerusalem where I grew up, where questions of territories and power were very extreme. If you grew up in Paris or in a little village say in Sweden it is less visible. However, and regardless of that, the very subtle games of power in our lives are still very powerful. I try to scratch the surface to bring things up that maybe we do not speak up about enough. It’s obviously something which I am obsessed with.

Is there a political dimension to your work?

HS: There is no political agenda, no political purpose. But there is a political influence: the work is created under the pressure of a very politicized world. It opens political questions but there are no answers anywhere. My work does not say whether war is good or bad, it just makes you feel violence and war. You have to ask yourself how violent you are, how much you are participating, or participating by not participating, how much you are allowing things to be. My work is a sort of observation, an observation without answers.

You devise not just the choreography but also the music for your works, it’s a ‘total approach’. Have you always composed your own music and why do you work in this way?

HS: Yes, I have always made the music for my choreographies. When I was around 5 or 6 years old I started to play the piano. Music is my first love, before dance. When I started to choreograph, after having been a professional dancer, I found that having my music heard in theatres was very exciting. The music is a massive part of my creations, it is very powerful, engulfing and atmospheric. Once I find the right sound, it is easier for me to make the choreography. I love the process of making the music with the choreography. As you said it is total, everything is connected to the same feeling and idea, leaving nothing to chance.

How do you compose? Do you work with musicians?

HS: Sometimes yes. I do the base on my own, finding the main lines with electronic sounds and singing. Then I can work with musicians, in particular with string players, asking them to improvise. I love working with musicians because it takes the music seven steps beyond what I can do, especially in Grand Finale, where musicians have input so much, instrumentally.

What other projects you are working on today?

HS: Quite a few! I will create new pieces for the Nederlands Dans Theater in September and for the Gothenburg Dance Company. I will also make a film out of Clowns with my company for the BBC. I also have an outdoor project at the Tower of London this summer. It will involve a hundred dancers and some young musicians living in East London. The idea is to create a work for them, involving young choreographers as well, and we will then put everything together in a large scale performance. And I am also working on a new production for next year!