Survivor, a collaboration between choreographer and – in this case – composer, Hofesh Shechter, and the artist Anthony Gormley, is about conflict on a global scale; it explores the dynamic interaction between the individual – the everyman – and the world: the human race and elemental nature. It unites and combines musical, sculptural, physical and visual landscapes, probing for meaning through their juxtaposition. If its heavy reliance on open-endedness only becomes, eventually, a kind of tepid didacticism, lost in the formal clash onstage, Survivor is far from being a failure, at least not in terms of spectacle. There are nuances and fragments along the way that together make for an intriguing cultural compendium: at its best, Survivor is expressive, funny and pensive; at its worst, it’s generic, dissipated and confused.
The piece brings an intriguing politics of representation to the stage; it’s obsessed with ‘bigness’ both thematically and formally, in its interest to explore political, social and natural spaces of conflict as well as in its desire to merge the musical with the visual. A band of over twenty musicians, occupy the Barbican’s vast stage, sat on a simple truss construction. At one point, a band of over fifty drummers also enters the stage. A projection screen is lowered occasionally to show fleeting flocks of birds and war-torn deserts. Performers enter the space in a frenzy of movement, embodying the splintered quality of the music.
There is a constant sense of vastness, though occasionally this gets scaled down. The piece is vast in its erupting musicality, in the sheer static weight of a typical Gormley sculpture: the round steel cannonballs dropped on stage, breaking up the space. The piece moves from a man curled inside a bathtub to a cascade of water. Cameras sweep from the keyboard of a piano up to the surprising height of the Barbican’s stage tower, only for the image to transform into the sight of a building being demolished – but the transgressive moments of the piece are far more powerful than any of its tortured play with cameras. There’s a vulnerability which underlines its intriguing questions about identity, and when this quality eventually becomes too faint, the production itself starts to crumbles.
Shechter and Gormley explore the visual and emotional areas of conflict, translating them from music to movement to materiality, searching within these universalities for identity and belonging. It’s the relational that holds the power – yet this bigness sometimes becomes too big, neglecting the live mechanics of the piece and too often falling back on the two-dimensionality and immateriality of the projection screen.
In fact, the most problematic moments of the piece are when too much mediation comes into play; we almost never hear the music in its pure form, it’s always manipulated through speakers and is surprisingly undramatic in its climactic moments. The musicians and cast are upstaged by a frustrating obsession with the lowering of the projection screen and the tinkering with large-scale images that become meaningless in its repetition. Gormley is clearly interested with the stage as a functional space, an instrument; he shows us lights crossing the stage, the towers, the trap doors, but this exploration is often obstructed and underused. The Barbican stage is laid out on the slab, but the dissection never takes place.
Schechter and Gormley surpass the usual commodification of emotion so present in spectacle. It’s the physical elements – the thunder of falling balls of steel, the clattering of ladders as the musicians climb to their post, the movement of the light as it invades the auditorium and is refracted by the grids of the Barbican’s safety curtain- in which meaning is also refracted.
Shechter’s composition also feels a little meagre in comparison to the music of post-rock bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The main element in both his composition and his choreography is the strong presence of pastiche, whether in the projected routines reminiscent of Lucinda Childs’ experiments or the variety of influences apparent in his music: postrock, progrock, Hassidic ritual and an amalgam of drumming and percussion.
Shechter is known for his energetic, deconstructive and accessible choreography and for the way he blends the personal with global politics in works such as Uprising and Political Mother. The Israeli-born artist explores universal issues such as freedom through energetic and aggressive works of performance that mine his personal experiences. The trained percussionist and dancer has done it all: from ballet to Skins; as critic Luke Jennings puts it, his shows are “contemporary dance as rock concert”.
Gormley’s interest in identity, particularly in the public sphere, translates into this performance, but there isn’t enough real discussion, or indeed conflict, between the two artists. A fantastic attempt has been made at translating sculptural qualities onto a piece of live performance and at times these juxtapositions proves expressive. Yet, though individually interesting, when all the elements combine the result is indulgent and often senselessly romantic. The finished piece mixes both sophisticated and clichÃ©d imagery in such a way that the potency of its unique energy and its intriguing formal play is obstructed by its reliance on superficiality, dissonant conceits and the manipulation of emotions.