Lord and the dance

Contemporary dance star Hofesh Shechter is planning a new work on the 10 plagues

During rehearsals, Hofesh Shechter is asking his company of dancers what the English word is for staring with intent. “Glaring,” one of his dancers pipes up. “Exactly, glaring,” agrees Shechter, delighted that someone is able to interpret his direction.

At just 33, the Israeli choreographer is one of the brightest new stars of the British dance scene, quickly surpassing his counterparts since arriving in the UK in 2002 by becoming associate artist at London dance haven The Place in 2004, and staging performances at Sadler’s Wells.

His piece In Your Rooms was described by one critic as “probably the most important new dance-work to be created in Britain since the millennium”.

He is currently rehearsing with six other dancers a new work based on the theme of the 10 plagues. It will be performed at Wilton’s Music Hall in London’s East End next week.

Shechter has composed a number of works since leaving fellow Israeli choreographer Jasmin Vardimon’s company in 2004, but has never before worked on a Jewish-themed one. But the Jerusalem-born artist is embracing the task.

“I haven’t consciously worked on a subject that is Jewish,” he says during a break in rehearsals. “This piece on the 10 plagues — the first thing that came into my mind was the concept of punishment and of God punishing. The very same God painted as merciful and kind punishes the Egyptians in quite an extreme way and violent way so we can glorify him.”

The piece questions whether the plagues were a proportional punishment. “We glorify God for punishing other people who are not Jews,” says Shechter. “The idea that God differentiated between his sons, whether they are Jewish or Egyptian, is interesting to me — to think people believe that. There are things that are happening in the world today that could be similar to the plagues. Do we have to accept that this is also God’s punishment?

“My work is not literal. I allow thoughts and ideas and concepts to inspire a feeling and an energy. I’m not telling a story, and I don’t have a statement. I just let it inspire a general feeling that is connected to a conflict.”

Despite not ever having consciously produced a piece with a Jewish theme, Shechter argues that everything he does is Jewish in some way — like his study into masculinity, Uprising, in which there is a moment when two male dancers perform what looks like a speeded-up version of the hora.

“There’s always an element of Jewishness or Israel in what I do, because I’m from there,” he says.

“Everything I do is informed by what I am. When I watch my own work, I can easily find elements that are related to my history. But I’m not supporting Jewishness or any other kind of religious belief.”

Shechter, whose work exudes a raw energy and gritty urban style, goes about his business with a down-to-earth approach appreciated by his dancers.

“I like someone who’s straight-talking,” says Gavin Coward, 27, who has been with the company for the past year-and-a-half. “I find contemporary dance a bit wishy-washy for my liking, but Hofesh’s stuff is alive. It excites me. His movements suit my body and all the dancers here.”

Shechter, who grew up playing drums as well as dancing — he started as a folk dancer in his native Jerusalem, then moved on to ballet and contemporary dance — says he left Israel for Britain to allow his creativity to develop. “I could have been creative in Israel, but I wasn’t. I didn’t get perspective. I didn’t choose England. I just felt I wanted to move to Europe because I liked Europe.”

It is true that Shechter has spread his wings since leaving Israel. Most notably he was choreographer on the National Theatre’s physical version of Saint Joan in 2007, and more recently, he directed the explosive opening scene of E4’s teen drama Skins.

“I wanted to get out of the political pressure cooker that is Israel,” he says. “I feel like the world is a bigger place.”

Hofesh Shechter’s 10 Plagues will be performed on April 10 at Wilton’s Music Hall, London E1 (tel: 020 7431 9866) as part of The Other Seder, an alternative Passover celebration also featuring Joshua Sofaer, The Destroyers, Judy Batalion and DJ Max Reinhardt. The event, organised by the Jewish Community Centre, is produced by Yad Arts. The JC’s commissioning arts editor, Josephine Burton, who runs Yad Arts, had no role in commissioning this interview

    Last updated: 2:59pm, June 8 2008