In 2004, Heidi Postlewait, Kenneth Cain and Dr. Andrew Thomson wrote a book about aid work called Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures. Forget that it’s about three aid workers in the 1990s for now, and focus on the title. ‘Emergency sex’ is the frantic, adrenaline-fuelled sex that happens after major disasters, or in war zones, or as the apocalypse looms. It is the body’s way of reasserting the joy of its existence, against all odds.
Hofesh Shechter’s Grand Finale is shot through with this nervous, defiant ecstasy. Ten dancers in shirts and trousers shudder, scramble and flop their way around a stage punctuated with enormous moving rectangles, played to by six classical musicians in evening wear – a nod to the band that played aboard the Titanic as it sank. Alternately humorous, tender and VERY VERY VERY LOUD, it eschews linear narrative in favour of a sort of emotional collage representing a community at the brink of a breakdown.
If you like Shechter (and you found 2015’s barbarians interminable), you’ll like Grand Finale. Shechter’s eardrum-splitting original score, his dense, gravity-wrapped, boiling movement language, his left-hook-to-the-chin straightforwardness in making himself heard, is immediately recognisable and reassuringly confident. If you don’t like Shechter, you’re not going to find much in Grand Finale to change your mind. It is what it is: it is Shechter.
On press night, I sat wedged between two other critics. One was breathless with excitement before the piece had even begun, and leapt to their feet to applaud when the man himself came on stage for a curtain call at the end of the night. “He’s just brilliant,” they gasped. “There is almost nothing I have seen that goes for the heart as directly and unashamedly as his work does. He’s thrilling.” The other was rather less warm. “It’s just another nail in the coffin in my relationship with dance,” they said wearily. “It’s more of the same. It’s more Hofesh Shechter.”
There is certainly a familiar aesthetic at work here, not only recalling Shechter’s earlier pieces but also repeating itself in this single piece. Although there is much to admire, Grand Finale could be trimmed to a single act and not lose any impact.
The first act is blackly comic, filled with stamping, martial ensemble pieces and dancers crashing from ferociously energetic to corpse-like and unmoving until dragged away. There is a powerful sense of collapse, of bodies simply giving out in the face of the enormity of the end of the world. One grimly hilarious section sees four limp female dancers hauled about, rearranged and folded up by four hopelessly kinetic male dancers, in a macabre eschatological version of a pas de deux.
There is too much of it, however, and the more tender and humane energy of the second act feels too long awaited. Gathering around the six-piece band, facing away from the audience, the dancers whoop and cheer, dancing seemingly for themselves. They pulse through a hypnotic section of ogees and coils – perhaps the finest choreography in the piece. Some of the closing images are the most striking: the huge grey rectangles that have haunted the stage, drifting back and forth and forming walls, blockades, gravestones, form a small room. A couple kiss inside it, watched curiously by the rest of the performers; later the ten of them crowd inside, a tiny society gathering itself for an uncertain future. Indeed, Tom Scutt’s set design, which set the moving blocks adrift on the stage, is strange and simple. As with the piece as a whole, their import is felt rather than explained.
Grand Finale is absolutely worth the time for fans of Hofesh Shechter, and for anyone who has never seen his work but are curious to see a distinctive, compelling choreographer at the height of his powers. In this time of despair, fake news and potential nuclear war, it is important we continue to celebrate the energy of pleasure and the drama of the show. If nothing else, Grand Finale is emergency art – go and know you’ll get the movement, the music, the drums.
Grand Finale is on at Sadler’s Wells until 16 September 2017. Click here for more details.