Almost exactly a year ago, Hofesh Shechter Company graced the stage of Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House, with the choreographer’s explosive Political Mother. Bringing a deafening sound score (the audience was handed ear plugs on their way to the auditorium), vigorous dancing and impactful political slant, that work remains a highlight of BAM’s 2012 Next Wave Festival. This week, the company takes the same stage with a different kind of a beast – which could aptly be described as a wolf in sheep’s clothing – a blistering, yet humorous work titled Sun.

Sun © Ian Douglas
Sun
© Ian Douglas

The stage design – including the drab, semi-circular wall in the back, the dusty lighting, which includes an array of bare lightbulbs suspended high above, and playful costumes (including a pair of harlequins, poofy-wigged clowns and a magician who, I soon learn, becomes the MC for the evening) sets the piece in a circus-like atmosphere. As the house lights begin to dim, the customary “please turn off your cellphones” announcement is replaced by a heavily accented voice (the choreographer’s, presumably) emanating from the speakers, explaining that he wanted to show us an excerpt from the end, so that everyone is sure to know that no matter what happens in the course of the show, it all will indeed end well. The lights come on abruptly, some ten seconds of very high-spirited choreography and music is performed by the ensemble before the action is cut off as quickly as it came, while the house is filled with peals of laughter from the audience. As it turns out, it is a directorial tactic that does an excellent job of setting the right frame of mind (or, the right set of goggles) for the audience to view the show with.

On the surface, Sun is for the most part a downright humorous – and at times slapsticky – work. There is quite a lot of histrionics at play here, and yet it is obvious that the ensemble is not being precious about it – nor are they taking themselves too seriously – ultimately making the work portentous rather than pretentious. Because the narrative, though non-linear, is laced with humor in a satirical fashion, the audience’s engagement multiplies, also prompting them to engage in the work’s less obvious layers. Unlike Political Mother, Sun’s political agenda is much more elusive, much like the work of 20th century absurdists who buried meaning in humor to evade censorship. Obviously – and thankfully – Shechter is not concerned with the latter; much like his protagonist, the magician, he wants to seduce you into engaging with the work’s hidden meanings in spite of the fact that that may not be what you came here to do. And, as you may suspect, I would argue that he very much succeeds in this mission.

Sun is extremely eclectic both choreographically and musically – Shechter not only staged the work but also authored its score – with references as diverse as hip-hop, Renaissance court dances, and Middle-Eastern folk dancing, all mellifluously blended together with Gaga – the movement style developed by Ohad Naharin’s revered Batsheva Dance Company in Israel, where Shechter got his start as a young dancer.

Visually, the piece is buoyed by a keen sense of cinematic montage. Sun has an episodic structure, in which abrupt cuts are favored over smooth crossfades, and an alternating pattern of light and darkness creates a sense of rhythm, with a powerful cumulative effect. Shechter’s thundering score is much more rock concert than opera house, but that too adds a sense of excitement to the proceedings. All these elements are kinesthetically connected with the magician character, which creates a feeling of his indeed conjuring up this world and all of its denizens, along with their goings-on.

Much of the work’s more overt narration is provided by scenes in which the ensemble members assume the role of puppeteers, manipulating two-dimensional cardboard cutouts to create brief cartoon-like vignettes. I would argue that these scenes constitute the spine of the piece, and it is in these sections that Shechter’s political agenda comes closest to the surface. Over the course of the evening, interspersed between choreography-driven sections, these scenes feature sheep, who are infiltrated by the wolf, an aboriginal warrior, a colonial hunter, a hoodie-wearing Trayvon Martin look-alike, and a corporate honcho with a briefcase. While no violence is enacted, the implication is obvious and therefore more powerful because it burrows its way into our minds. The danger is also – again humorously – punctuated by repeated interventions of a female audience plant who jolts up from her seat, points at the stage and launches a blood-curdling scream before each blackout.

The progression of these scenes makes me think about the history of Western civilization as a food chain, and the implications of it are profoundly unsettling. While the analogy Shechter creates could probably be applied to most countries on the planet, tonight’s performance takes place in the United States, and when one considers even the short history of this country, one is reminded that its foundations are built on bloodshed – including slavery and the systematic destruction of indigenous populations, which paved the way for what we call our civilization. So, when, towards the end of the show, the magician screams towards the audience “The wolf is behind you!”, it is a powerful moment of tables being turned. Up until then, we are made to believe that we are given permission to remain complacent, but from that point it is clear that we are implicated in the historical Grand Guignol of violence, that we are not witnesses but indeed accomplices, whether we want to accept it or not.

Just like unstoppable natural phenomena – such as the Sun in the work’s title – Shechter’s work brings up the notion that there are forces at work that shape history that are larger than life – often beautiful but also destructive, and ultimately, relentlessly unforgiving.

****1