Star Choreographer Hofesh Shechter Discusses His “Political Mother”

Hofesh Shechter has become one of the top new names in the world of dance since relocating from Israel to England a decade ago.  But while the star choreographer insists his work is apolitical, his experience of the realities of life in Israel can’t help but emerge in the mix.

His first full-length piece, “Political Mother,” which makes its United States premiere at Royce Hall on Oct. 19 and 20, examines tensions between the state and society as a samurai commits ritual hara kiri, a dictator shouts guttural commands and drone-like figures slave.

The clash between group dynamics and the individual is a theme the 35-year-old Shechter has returned to time and again since moving to London in the aftermath of September 11.  His visceral “In Your Rooms,” tinged by his fraught experience in the Israeli military, earned high marks for its exploration of group dynamics versus the individual; in 2006’s “Uprising,” seven men emerge from the shadows to bombard viewers with furious energy, bonding and sparring, making up and falling out.

The rock ‘n’ roll tinged score for “Political Mother” – which features ten dancers and eight musicians—is composed by Shechter himself; his movement style has a “kind of urban-guerrilla edginess…[that] can catch you off guard in ways that are bound to disorient conventional expectations,”  The Independent opined.  “There is nothing complacent to be seen here.”

Recently, I caught up with Shechter by phone in Melbourne, Australia, where his company was touring with “Political Mother,” to discuss his artistic journey from Israel to London and why he so resolutely avoids politics in his work.

Here are excerpts from our conversation:

NPM:  Growing up in Israel, did the art of Israeli folk dance have anything to do with your choice of career?

HF:  It had everything to do with my getting into dancing.  We had folk dance lessons in school since I was 6 or 7; I was a very shy kid and didn’t think I had a future in dance in any way.  But my teacher was very enthusiastic about my ability, and that was the reason I joined a youth company in Jerusalem.  Later, I attended the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.  But my decision to pursue this happened totally through folk dancing.

NPM:  You danced in the junior company of Israel’s most prominent troupe, Batsheva, while doing your compulsory military service.  How did that work?

HF:  The country recognizes that if an artist completely stops his work for three years, his career could be ruined.  So I was able to get an excellence in dance status where I was allowed to dance in Batsheva in the mornings, and in the evenings I would work in a military office.

NPM: You’ve described your military experience as traumatic.

HF:  My service wasn’t extreme in any military way; it was just a feeling that you are being raised in a country that is absolutely democratic and free, but there is a rule that when you turn 18 you must enter this other institution inside the democratic one where you must do absolutely everything you are told.  This concept was so hard for me to grasp:  How is this possible?  It was just that the system suddenly took over my life and defined whether or not I could dance.  That fear was always there and it was scary, especially at a point where you are just discovering who you are in the world.

NPM:  In one interview, you described war virtually “coming in through the window” in Israel after the attacks on the World Trade Center – one reason you decided to relocate to England in 2002.

HF:  Israel is a very rich place emotionally, but it is also a very small, intense place, and there was a constant sort of political noise.  The feeling I got is that I was not blooming artistically, for whatever reason – it might have been my own weakness.  I was curious about Europe, and I found a quiet corner where I felt I could have perspective on all these emotions and experiences.  Suddenly, I could express myself and create.

NPM:  Does your work reflect any of these experiences?

HF:  My work is not political, but it definitely deals with the effects of politics on the individual; the emotional experience of people living under big and powerfully oiled systems.

NPM: So your dance “Uprising” does not refer to the Intifadah?

HF:  It’s a work that is non-specific to world events.  I was seeing very similar things happening around the world: a feeling of uprising or claiming what you think is yours; something that bubbles up inside of us, whether it’s taking place in Israel, Germany or America.  It was also interesting for me to create choreography that deals with order and chaos.  But again, the work is about energy and emotions, not politics.

NPM: Yet you’re now touring with a piece called “Political Mother.”

HF: People are always asking me if my work is political, so it amused me to include the word, “political” in one of my works. The title is also a clue that sets the state of mind for the [piece.] The words “political” and “mother” are weirdly conflicting, but there is also a strong connection between them—a sense of servitude implied in both words.  In politics, we are trained to serve a system, and while we think of motherhood as referring to someone who cares for us, we are also obliged to obey.

The idea was to create a sense of different worlds that will flash in front of us and flicker from one reality to another; and to find an emotional tension between the existence of these realities in the timing of the piece.

NPM:  How did you create the choreography?

HF:  When you’re talking about servitude, for example, you want to find a kind of movement and a quality of body language that one might have if you lived inside that energy.  When you’re dealing with characters who represent the [most oppressed] levels of society, there is a sort of weakness, an emptiness, an exploration of movement that is difficult or hollow.

NPM:  The piece starts and ends, literally, with a knife in the gut.

HF:  Often I try to start from the most extreme thing relating to themes I’m exploring.  If I’m examining how far an individual can go to serve a system, one can’t go much farther than deleting oneself.  It’s this amazing sense of our own nature.  Of course the survival instinct is very powerful, but it’s possible to override that instinct with a concept – an idea I find fascinating.

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