Brighton Festival 2014
Commissioned by Bruno Wang and a long list of co-commissioners including the Brighton Festival and Sadlers Wells, Sun, by Hofesh Shechter, is a spare, eloquent and emotive work.
Set against a dust-coloured stage, a tribe of 16 dancers invoke, via the fluid antennae of their bodies, the demons and joys that possess, delight and curse our species. Folkloric. Punk. Tensile with mischief. It rumbles with a sub-bass note of passionate intent that bursts forth urgently one minute then is suspended in quiet expectation the next. Layers of historical and cultural resonance are given anarchic contemporary forms. Occasionally, the piece spills from the auditorium onto the stage and dances with us, amongst and inside us. Once or twice it even dares to touch on the lyrical. But we aren’t allowed to stay there long. This isn’t lyrical subject matter.
The inclination for the powerful to seek more for itself to the detriment of the weak. Our need to be convinced of our own goodness, kindness and rightness even in the face of, say, illegal intelligence gathering, racial hatred and illegal wars. How can we sit here enjoying high art whilst these kind of atrocities are going on in our name, under our noses and in plain sight? Asks the piece. It is a difficult question and one it feels important to ask. Though it kind of collapses in on itself the more you think into it.
‘You Will Never Catch Us. We are Hiding In Plain Sight’, taunts Shechter’s booming voice, heavy with menace. The choreographer’s voiceover is a signature aspect of his work and one which, historically, I have had issue with. It hammers home a little too literally a theme that is already being delivered with natural power. This is true here too, although what felt refreshing this time was a self depreciation in the authorial voice. A welcome mischief and playful jousting in his tone.
Lee Curran’s lighting design toys with a liminal quality. A firmament of light bulbs over head – sometimes so dim we can barely make out the bustling, convulsive restlessness of the movement. There is an intelligent tease in the lighting design that keeps us in an open guessing place – an intelligence that is alive to theatrical convention and comedy timing. A huge cut out drawing of a sheep suddenly appears in a spot light. Cut to black. Then another. Then another. Then all the cut out sheep do a Nijinski inspired dance evocative of the shoot ’em down side show games on Brighton’s Palace Pier. The effect being a kind of primitive cinema, Zoetrope, or flick book on our retina.
Most of the very compelling – if speaker rattlingly loud – music was composed by Shechter himself, another signature feature. The satisfaction in this for me is that it is almost as if the dancers bodies are emerging from the very architecture of the beats and tonal qualities. As if the music is growing the dance.
I kept thinking of the word ‘palimpsest’. A word fresh in my mind following recent conversations with an artist friend who is toying with the word as a title. The suggestion that old is always sitting behind – and peeking out from behind – the new. History layering over and over itself in endless but not exact loops. Writing over what has gone before. There is a sequence where the throng of roughly assembled dancers peeks out from behind their hands. It was at first suggestive to me of espionage – the powerful doing the watching. Then in the repetition of the motif, suddenly I am seeing the vulnerable – the ones being watched – the underclass. The ones under surveillance. Victim / perpetrator. Native / colonist. Self / other.
I walked away thinking about the NSA and the ownership / colonisation of our privacy. The idea that if you sign up to something and it is free, then you are the product. The last bastion to be annexed is our consciousness, and it is happening now. In plain sight. Right underneath our noses.