The persistence of memory

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, August 27

HOFESH Shechter’s Sun has toured extensively since its world premiere at the Melbourne Festival about 10 months ago. It’s now briefly in Sydney for five performances only. I had quite a few reservations on first seeing Sun – my initial review is below – and some remain, but I liked it significantly better last night than last year. The piece looks more coherent, seems less jokey and feels much angrier.

Sun cr Jess Bialek 14

Returning to a piece after a fair amount of time is always an interesting challenge. How accurate is one’s memory? How much has the choreographer put in or left out as the work has travelled and evolved? What difference in one’s perception is due to relatively small changes in attack, duration, emphasis? Does the omission of a couple of labored touches that last only a few moments (dummy hanging from a noose; a woman leaping up in the audience screaming) help more than you might think?

Sun is still remarkably plain about its politics and its indictment of colonialism and its fruits. The message is blunt and is done in a way that’s not so very new: assailing you, the audience member, for being in the comfortable position of being able to attend this performance. But it felt to me as if Shechter’s concerns were being expressed with a higher level of seriousness. Sun seemed a whole lot tougher, impassioned and therefore more affecting and effective.

Shechter’s choreography is rooted in muscular folk dance but there are fragments of many other movement languages woven into a rich tapestry by the company’s extraordinary dancers. They were mesmerising last October and remain so.

One more thing: there were no free earplugs in sight. Yes, the music is loud, but honestly, not that loud. Good to see the affectation – or was it nanny-state overkill? – dropped.

Sun ends Saturday.

And from last year:

SUN finds Hofesh Shechter in a jocund mood, or what passes for it. The title implies warmth and light. Facsimile sheep wander and gambol. Every now and again a woman leaps up from the front row of the auditorium to utter a brief, piercing scream and then sits right back down again. One of Irving Berlin’s most swoon-worthy songs keeps punctuating Shechter’s thumping score and I swear there is twerking too, for just a moment (although not to Berlin).

Of course where there is sun there is shadow. The announcement at Sun’s outset that “everything will be just fine” is contradicted at every turn and the apparently playful takes on a sinister light. The Berlin song is Let’s Face the Music and Dance; the sheep are occasionally joined by a wolf. There’s even a snippet of Wagner in the score, an acid touch from the Israeli-born choreographer. African colonialism gets a moment too, along with flashes of contemporary urban behaviour. If Sun has a theme it is this: lambs to the slaughter.

The imagery is obvious, heavy-handed and in the case of the sheep, tediously over-extended. Shechter’s surrealist collage pulls together an eclectic range of references to political and social oppression but there’s no real weight there. Ideas clearly important to Shechter have a trivial air. And if I could institute a ban on strenuous fake laughing in dance works it would take place from this instant.

It’s a different story with the dance itself, which forms a fast-flowing, often turbulent river on which this other material bobs about. As with his breakout hit Political Mother (2010), Shechter finds power and purpose in the group although it is rare to see any physical contact. He understands that togetherness and separateness co-exist inextricably and from this fact much of life’s tumult emerges.

Sun, which is having its world premiere at the Melbourne Festival, is performed almost entirely in unison, the movement often rooted to the spot or covering little ground. Gestures are forceful and highly eloquent and there is frequent repetition, within a section of dance and within the overall structure. All this is done to a loud, foursquare beat – the kind of firm, regular beat that speaks to the blood.

Ritual and history are embedded in Shechter’s choreography. Fragments of folk and social dance from all sorts of places flicker and are then integrated back into the whole, although sometimes, as near the end of Sun, they harden into something less benign. The dance and these superb dancers tell the story.

By the way, the offer of earplugs at Sun is unnecessary as the music really isn’t that loud. It could have been much more over-powering, something I very much wished for Sun as a whole.

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