Sadler’s Wells, London
September 12, 2017
It’s been a while since an hour of dance passed so quickly. In some ways, Hofesh Shechter’s latest work, the two-act Grand Finale, is typical him. It’s certainly a spectacle. The dance is very physical, tribal even at times, darkly lit and dark in mood. It’s loud too, at least part of the time. What’s different is just how involving it is; how it reaches out, grabs you and makes you think.
Shechter refuses to be drawn precisely on what Grand Finale is all about, preferring the audience to make up their own minds, to react in their own way. “What matters is what happens on stage, then if something happens to the audience. Or not.” Not that there’s much “or not” here.
What Shechter has said is that Grand Finale came out of things going on in his life and around him at the time. It’s impossible not to see it as a commentary on society, the intolerance and violence (as much of word as of deed, although the latter is seen on stage). There’s an overwhelming sense of a rush towards Armageddon. While we do see moments when the cast apparently pause for thought, it’s not long before they are being driven (or should that be driving themselves?) on again.
And all the time, the music plays on, creating the illusion that everything is all right, or at least, everything will be all right and things will work out. The choice of classical excerpts magnifies that feeling, especially the waltz, ‘Love Unspoken’, from The Merry Widow. An easy parallel is with the band on the Titanic, playing on as the ship went down. I prefer to see Grand Finale as a warning as to what might happen (or will if things don’t change), though, not as a foregone conclusion. The sextet that provides the live music are fabulous, by the way.
The world Shechter presents may be bleak and oppression, but it’s also oddly beautiful at times. There are moments of great emotion, usually in the quieter sections.
The complex choreography has great contrasts. Hints of patterns, of structures come and go like remnants of what was. From time to time there is a sense of togetherness, but it soon breaks down. Fury and group ecstasy are mixed with stillnesses and silences. There’s a lot of repetition of gestures. Dancers pull, push and grind each other down.
There are startling images galore. A waltz is played out to silent screams from the dancers. Or are they moans, which are heard in the score? Dancers freefall, hold their hands up as if in surrender. Bodies are dragged or manipulated like puppets, most notably during a grotesque waltz. Victims are cradled, but humanity never lasts long. Just before the interval, soap bubbles fall and that waltz plays, and continues playing through the break, the audience even encouraged to join in by la-la-ing. “See, everything is OK after all.” Another illusion, I’m afraid.
Integral to the work are Tom Scutt’s eight upright slabs that glide around silently, changing the performance space, hiding and revealing dancers and musicians alike. They have a menacing, ominous feel, especially when they close in on the dancers. Huge tombstones or representations of a cityscape? Take your pick. Maybe both. Equally impressive is Tom Visser’s atmospheric lighting.
The second half starts almost party-like, but once more, reality soon descends and it breaks up. The ending comes quietly. As the slabs close in one last time, tableaux show a pile of bodies, and a man, alone, praying. As the music fades for the last time, a group faces an upstage wall, a dead-end; no hope, it seems, nowhere to go. Before that, though we are shown couples dancing contentedly, another couple embracing and kissing. Perhaps it really is the end and they are visions of the past. I’m a bit more optimistic. Just perhaps, they are visions of what could be, and all is not yet lost.