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The lovers: (l-r) Donahue and Rosen in Romeo & Juliet.

Photo: Johan Henkens/MMDG

Intimate Aggression

By Lynn Hasselbarth

Hofesh Shechter Company

Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, Mass., July 11


Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter and his London-based dance company presented their U.S. debut at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival with two athletic and abrasive pieces, each revealing a pulsating underworld.

The first piece, titled Uprising, featured Shechter himself along with the six other male dancers. The process behind the choreography involved the idea of placing a random group of men in a confined space such as a damp basement or steamy factory. He urges the question, What occurs when limited visual and intellectual stimulation imprisons the psyche, or more simply, how does one cope with absolute boredom?

The group of seven men are young, virile and athletic, at their physical peak and yet visibly restricted in their surroundings. At times the movement was wide and expansive, with the men tearing across the space like raptors in flight. However, the stage always remained a cage of sorts, forcing the dancers to reduce their range of motion to slinky predatory movements, reptile-like and low to the ground.

Once Shechter’s movement vocabulary was introduced, a storyline did seem to appear. The full ensemble took on a militaristic element, first becoming evident during what seemed like a mass electrocution. The men lay in a group, with a blinding panel of lights glaring out into the audience. Bodies convulsed uncontrollably, caught as silhouettes in the hazy shadows on stage. The chilling images of war and combat felt authentic, considering the choreographer’s participation in Israel’s mandatory military service.

The intensity of the sequence settled as more natural lighting filled the stage, revealing the wood beams and barnlike interior of the Ted Shawn Theater. The men seemed to be cooling off, with sounds of rain heard in the background. In a rare moment of calm, the men slowly bowed their heads, as if to honor the previous fight.

Two of the men suddenly grabbed hold of each other in a desperate embrace. What initially seemed like a moment of compassion reverted into a statement of control. One of the men slowly loosened his hold and placed his hand on his opponent’s head. The subtle gesture lowered the man to the floor as if under a spell, utterly dependent beneath his counterpart’s grasp.

With the exception of this exchange, the men were evenly matched in strength, agility and motivation. This was evident during an exchange where each male sparred with another, placed in pairs across the space. With chests, shoulders and faces drawn tightly together, the men resisted each other to the point of stillness and absolute stalemate.

With relief, the tension broke, leading to a sudden closing with the men united downstage, positioned in a heap of bodies at various levels. The most boyish of the dancers was propped up high as if on a mountain, with his outstretched hand clenching a ragged red flag on a stick. The childlike playfulness of a band of brothers was overshadowed by the highly charged energy of this group of misguided warriors.

Shechter’s second piece, titled In Your Rooms, carried through similar themes related to mob mentality, aggression and defense. Contracted bodies were hunched over in a constant state of self-protection. With a low center of gravity, the dancers bolted across the floor with heads bowed down and arms outstretched, as if feeling one’s way through a smoky room. The image brought to mind the gang of disfigured corpses in the video of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

The inclusion of the company’s five female dancers brought a quality of intimacy and compassion that the previous piece lacked. While the women themselves were bold and defiant, at times they had a softening effect on their male counterparts. This allowed one to isolate individual dancers from the crowd and imagine the delicate storylines of a few.

A specific poignant gesture suggested this, with each female placing her hand upon her partner’s chest, while he gently replaced the hand unto the crown of his own head. This interplay seemed to mimic the exchange noted in the previous piece, but with an absence of control and manipulation.

During the final closing moments of the piece, one finally had an opportunity to focus on one particular relationship, in which the thrashing movements of one of the men was contained and finally settled by a passionate kiss. The female’s initiative was empowering and deeply touching, possibly the only thing that could put closure on such a riotous and aggressive performance.

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