An Ineffective Upheavalby Evan Namerow
Last month an uprising rocked the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House. A dictator roared, loud percussion vibrated through the floor, and fog filled the air as the dancers of Hofesh Shechter Company performed Political Mother, a 70-minute commentary on the tension between captors and captives. Silence was rare, the narrative was vague, and the exact setting was unknown. But it was clear that the Israeli-born Shechter, whose London-based company was making its BAM debut, has strong but unspecific feelings about the powerless and the powerful. We see, feel, and hear anger, but Political Mother never cuts through the thick fog that fills the theater to get at the heart of the struggle: It’s empty.
Ominous vignettes, none developed enough to become rewarding in any way, show moments from a crushed society. A community of 12 dancers stomp, shake, and quiver in unison while a tyrant, perched on a platform, thrashes and screams indecipherable words into a microphone. His invective is accompanied by a nearly nonstop flood of electronic percussion performed by seven men in military garb. The score, also by Shechter, often appears to guide his choreographic choices. The loud screeching of a guitar breaks a rare moment of silence when two dancers embrace. Elsewhere, an authoritative figure holds a gun to another man’s head, his arms overhead with head hung low, begging for mercy. The gunshot and sudden pounding on a drum are a unified sound, leading to another round of relentless, percussive thrashing.
The 12 victims, meanwhile, seamlessly fall to the floor and rise up again. They move in circles with arms limply raised above their heads. These characters might be downtrodden—heads hung low and hunched shoulders suggest exhaustion and anguish—but the dancers themselves are full of vigor. Yet their anger isn’t palpable. Perhaps it would have been better expressed if the dance vocabulary wasn’t so limited. Gestures and steps repeat too often and lose their impact, and the blaring music suffers similarly from a lack of variety.
Political Mother’s lack of nuance grows more frustrating as the piece progresses. The divides between victim and culprit are clear (often aided by gorgeous geometric lighting by Lee Curran), and the anger is endless. It’s not that we need to know where this is taking place, but why. Some of his previous works, including Uprising (2006) and The Fools (2009, and performed by Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet in New York in 2010), explore a similar theme and with similar movement vocabulary, but with greater subtlety than that of Political Mother. Vulnerability and weakness are evident in both “good” and “bad” characters, while characters in Political Mother seem one-dimensional. And while the piece’s tone remains at a constant, high-pitched scream for nearly the whole duration, his other works are more varied. They allowed the audience to breathe. Political Mother was more like an aggressive venting session.
Near the end of the work, the sentence “Where there is pressure there is folk dance” appears in yellow lighting on a black scrim at the back of the stage, triggering chuckles from the audience. That statement seems earnest, and it reflects what we’ve just been shown: a community uniting under the power of a dictator. Shechter’s point is worth making, but he presents a vague scenario without fleshing out any details. We see a community, yes, but their collective voice is unclear and as individuals they’re under-developed, hardly appearing human because we can’t see nor feel their emotions. All that’s left is something loud, angry, and ambiguous.