Over the last 10 years, the work of Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter has surged in popularity. Today, he is one of the biggest names in the world of dance.
But his background may not be what you expect. Born in Jerusalem, he was required to serve in the military aged 18 and went on to study music in Paris while playing drums in a rock band.
It is little wonder, then, that Hofesh doesn’t see himself as a dance person, as he explains to David Jays ahead of bringing his critically-acclaimed Grand Finale back to Sadler’s Wells this July.
Hofesh: I never really saw myself, and probably still don’t, as a dance person. I came to dance almost by absolute chance. When I was 12 years old, if you told me the word ‘choreographer’ or ‘contemporary dance,’ I wouldn’t have known what it means. The way I arrived at it was just being a person in life. I knew there is something in art that is very engaging and I was very curious. But dance was not on my radar. I think I still feel like that. I was connected to dance works that spoke to me beyond the dance jargon, beyond the ‘tendus’ and ‘jetes’, and how high the leg goes, and how many pirouettes one is doing, but more on the emotional, human level. I needed to have that kind of impact.
David: You gained an audience very quickly. Your career had an accelerated, propulsive trajectory, as you expanded your work until it was being formed on a very large scale. Did you have a sense of who you were talking to, who your ideal audience was?
Hofesh: My audience is my imagined audience. I sit at home and I think, “this is for the people I don’t know,” and I would say one of my best imagined audience members is myself because I am the only person who is absolutely honest with me.
David: Everyone else brings their own baggage.
Hofesh: Yeah, they bring their own baggage, then I am a suspicious person. They say they like it and I don’t know. They say they don’t like it and maybe they do.
I need to make something that rocks my boat, that makes me feel excited and then it’s sort of like a trust element where you’re like, if that works for me, there’s at least a few people out there who it might work for as well.
David: Knowing that you have a pool of people who enjoyed it first-time round, and would be open, hopefully, to coming again – does that change the way in which you continue to make work?
Hofesh: I never feel comfortable with feeling like I need to serve some sort of expectation, and that kind of tension with what I’ll call the ‘rock ‘n’ roll audience.’ It’s contemporary dance – contemporary, now, in the moment, responding to the now, responding to myself – and if now I am in a place where I feel connected to something, to a different kind of work and I don’t want it too noisy, or I want it to be looking inside, or to be very arty and minimalist, then I’ll do that. The greatest gift I can give my audience is to always surprise them.
David: There must have been bold choices that you made in early pieces, out of ignorance, that caution and experience might have actually held you back from?
Hofesh: In a way, the mistakes I’ve made are probably the best things that happened to the work, because mistakes also question the very idea of good work.
Our way of thinking, our way of seeing what is a harmonious, wholesome, or ‘good’ art is very dependent on our education. So the mistakes are interesting. You think, “wow, that was a harsh turn,” or “that doesn’t work, but it’s actually so interesting,” or “that’s just horrific and I’m sorry I did that, and I’ll probably pay the price in the next life if there was one.”
I feel that if I’m too careful, I just want to break everything – to throw everything down on the floor and break it. It’s actually a very important part of my process. That’s a very powerful energy.
David: We can’t end without talking about your fantastic dancers. Clearly you demand a lot of them and part of that is they give you psychic and emotional as well as physical material. How personal does the work feel to them?
Hofesh: One of the most important things for me is to be able to connect with the dancers on that human level. To feel that they move me with their choices in a way that makes me excited and feel powerful things.
I make a lot of movements. But I make it on their bodies, and then, like a mirror, it bounces back to me. I see how they do it, what they connect to, what they don’t. We speak about it very openly. They will tell me sometimes “I just don’t connect to that.” And they challenge me. I can see what I fight for, what I don’t. But the positive way that it works is that I will then ask them to improvise into that world.
Everyone is in a very sensitive place. Sometimes they can shut off from me. If they don’t give themselves, it’s not going to happen. But, in all honesty, they do give themselves. Oh my god, they give 150% of themselves. They put their hearts out there.
I think it shows in the work as well. They leave nothing on stage. They give everything.
This is an edited version of an interview between Hofesh Shechter and critic David Jays, was recorded on 26 March 2018 and published online at theatrevoice.com. TheatreVoice is the leading audio resource for British theatre. Follow TheatreVoice on Facebook and Twitter @theatrevoices. Subscribe to the TheatreVoice podcast via iTunes.