Hofesh Shechter’s Sun at the National Theater, Taipei
April 9, 2016
Sun opens with a voice in the darkness (usually Hofesh Shechter himself, but here in Chinese by Taiwanese company member Chang Chien-ming, 張建明) assuring us that, among other things, “Everything is going to be just fine,” and to prove it, we will get to see the end before the beginning, which we do. And it looks bright and happy, rather like you think a piece with such a title might look like. We are also assured us that “No animals were harmed in the making of this piece.” There’s something about that voice that’s a bit unnerving though. Somehow you just don’t believe what you hear, and pretty soon you’re proved correct.
The sun does make people happy and want to come out and play, but it creates shadows too. It also throws light into those darker corners of our world and our past that we might rather forget or not think about. No surprise, then, that it’s not long before Shechter’s familiar themes put in an appearance.
Oppression, fear and death stalk the piece. Indeed, it opens with a traditional bagpipe rendition of the hymn, Abide with me, the words of which (not heard here) include references to “the darkness deepens,” and, “When other helpers fail and comforts flee.” Soon after we hear the line, “There may be trouble ahead,” from Irving Berlin’s Let’s Face the Music and Dance. Then, large cut outs of friendly looking sheep appear. What could be more innocent? Maybe we misunderstood. Maybe everything is going to be all right after all. Then a wolf shows up.
The idea is repeated with cut-outs of African tribesmen and a gun-toting Victorian soldier representing the aborigine and the coloniser. The parallels are obvious. ‘Are we any better than animals?’ is a question that pops into the head. In case you don’t get it, the idea is done a third time with a hoodie-wearing youth. This time, a glimpse of him is all that’s needed. It’s not subtle, but it makes a point.
Some of the violent references are graphic. Four dancers are ‘shot’ by another totting a make believe rifle. Shortly afterwards, a fifth has his throat slit. We see a man beaten up by others wielding shoes. At the end, he and his assaulters stand and bow before walking off. Can we believe what we see? Just like that youth, are things really what they seem? What is the truth? What is really a lie?
As always, Shechter’s dancers are fully committed. The dance sections are jammed with complex and beautifully executed choreography. The sweeping ensemble sections are especially powerful. One of the best happens to be the simplest, a very short repeated phrase to that Irving Berlin number.
The rest of the score is a chaotic as the choreography. Much of it is by Shechter himself. There are sudden silences alongside some violent explosions of sound. In there too are snatches of Wagner’s Tannhäuser and Sigur Ros, and Abide with me gets a repeat. As ever, though, the music helps enormously to carry the work, escalate the tension and heighten anxieties.
The dance may be grounded, but the fast-moving dancers often seem almost buoyant, and have an earthy grace about them. There is often a looseness and freedom about them, but when they dance in unison, boy are they as one. Naturally, there’s some of the usual hunched, shuffling, travelling sequences but there’s much more in there too, all assembled skilfully. I even saw some ballet.
Christina Cunningham’s designs are outstanding, filling the stage with a range of shabby characters: a Pierrot; a doctor in a white coat cum master of ceremonies; and others in creams, beiges and khakis hailing from various historical periods. They are set off perfectly by Merle Hensel’s beautiful stone-white curved set and Lee Curran’s lighting that emphasises the omnipresent themes.
Sun is entertaining, disturbing and thought-provoking in equal measure. Interestingly, I appreciated it much more second time around here than when it first appeared in London in 2013. It is a bit ‘in your face’, but then maybe it needs to be. As we see the end once more, we realise we were correct in our fears: everything was most definitely not just fine.
In the UK, Hofesh Shechter’s Political Mother can be seen at the International Dance Festival Birmingham on May 13-14. Click here for details.