Often, the audience waiting in the hall reveals something about the show you are about to see. On this occasion, already on entering the theatre, one can smell the excitement in the air. Sadler’s Sampled presents Political Mother: The Choreographer’s Cut by the Israeli-born Hofesh Shechter. The piece – like the title, potently and overtly political – is a lucid critic of any totalitarian regime or suppressive political act. Political Mother is a disillusioned carousel of sadly familiar images taken from the news, a choreography of imprisoned bodies and brainwashed minds rescued by folk dancing on progressive rock music.

Hofesh Shechter’s Political Mother © Gabriele Zucca
Hofesh Shechter’s Political Mother
© Gabriele Zucca

For Political Mother, Shechter’s choreographer and composer sides have been let loose. With an unusual setting, the audience is standing in what is usually the lower part of the stalls; the show resembles more a Glastonbury concert (no mud) than a theatre in central London. The only thing missing is the sea of cigarette lighters waved to the rhythm of the inescapable love songs. You are on the (dance) floor of some busy rock concert, physically touched by the sound waves of an impressive, three-storey wall of musicians (24) seemingly suspended in the air. Alternating between classical music, progressive rock and military drums, the soundscape shifts quickly as if an imaginary battle were going on backstage with the bands unplugging each other in turns.

Similarly, the movement quality of the dancers shifts drastically in a matter of seconds: from moving fluidly, to trembling as if possessed, to robotic, disjointed movements. The typical Shechter position, a low hunchbacked stance familiar to the rave or rock concert-goer is mixed with headbanging. The movement material – folk dance, party moves and edited everyday life – is melded together in heterogeneous sequences evoking soldiers, samurai warriors and prisoners, in lines with raised hands or running helplessly in circles that merge into party people or ecstatic concert-goers. The colours alternate between bright for normal life and brownish for indoctrination, as blinding lights monitor the dancers’ movements. The seemingly endless series of tableaux is finally reverted in an unexpected, fast rewinding, as if Shechter had the remote control and wanted to go back to the start. Technically impressive, as it asks the dancers to move backwards at double pace without losing the required movement quality, this choreographic trick has the finesse of replaying scenes that the audience would otherwise lose or forget in the general information overload.

More than a dance piece, Political Mother is a danced musical video for the MTV generation. Special effects of light, music and movement make it already an extreme experience, but Shechter heightens this by playing with opposites – classical and rock music – creating a complete saturation of the senses with only brief moments of silence, to pause for breath. Going from one extreme to the other, he is not afraid of juxtaposition, of making opposites co-operate or of simply silencing them. His experience as a composer and a member of a band have surely been essential. His musical associations might seem casual but never are, and inform each level of the choreography. The movement material is presented on hard rock, with almost ritualistic rhythms, and then replayed on classical music, creating a temporary auditory and visual clash. As well, the remnant of the previous rhythm stays to contaminate and stratify the next, so that a classical piece acquires a darker, hard-rock undertone.

But his visual imagery is just as rich. Joyfully playing with quotations, he references news, everyday life and films highlighting the political effect on the individual. On a background inspired by Austrian film-maker Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), a character resembling Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) shouts incomprehensible words to an oppressed horde of zombies that shuffle their feet in no clear direction. Is this a party, a ritual, or political oppression? The boundaries are difficult to set, continuously drifting with the movement of the dancers. Traced gently, like a haiku, not too obvious but not too cryptic, the critic is addressed to every totalitarian regime or suppressive political action. To contrast the hypnotic power of music and words, the dancers can only oppose through movement and their own cultural identity – because, as Shechter puts it, “where there is pressure, there is folkdance”, and every dance is political.

Political Mother is a perfect production, performed with care; up to the stylized bowing, no detail is left to chance. It is not a dance piece: it is a whole, a collaboration of arts to create a hybrid. Impressive for both its artists and its content, it brings rock to dance venues and the audience out of their seats and onto the dancefloor, waving their hands and headbanging to the music. Shechter is a choreographer who wants to reach the masses, and thanks to Sadler’s Sampled – a festival that features great dance for budget prices – he can extend his invitation for an audience to dance an uprising.

*****