When a dance scholar kept a rock star choreographer in check…

Saturday morning I stumbled upon an irate Twitter post by Hofesh Shechter. Shechter is Associate Artist at Sadler’s Wells and has just premiered a new work, Untouchable, for the Royal Ballet. The tweet, no longer there, was a response to Cloud Dance Festival promoting an article, which announced the launch of Hofesh Shechter Company’s youth dance group, called Shechter Junior. Cloud Dance Festival referred to the developments as ‘Hofesh Youth’, which Shechter read as a direct parallel to the Hitler Youth. He called Chantal Guevara racist and swore at her. A quick retort from Guevara gently suggested to Shechter that this was a misguided attack. After all, the article she promoted was neutral, if not supportive, of the youth company launch. For some reason, I couldn’t agree with Article 19’s suggestion that both parties delete the tweets and forget about the whole thing.

So, I barged in to call Shechter up on his aggression towards Cloud Dance Festival. Soon enough, Shechter sent me a reply reinforcing his point with a link to the Wikipedia entry on the Hitler Youth.  I write that I don’t interpret the tweet like he sees it. Shechter explains that he reads the post as anti-Semitic and demands an apology. He even accuses me of endorsing a racist comment. Judith Butler asks: ‘When we claim to have been injured by language, what kind of claim do we make? […] To be injured by speech is to suffer a loss of context, that is, not to know where you are. Indeed, it may be that what is unanticipated about the injurious speech act is what constitutes its injury, the sense of putting its addressee out of control. The capacity to circumscribe the situation of the speech act is jeopardized at the moment of injurious address. To be addressed injuriously is not only to be open for an unknown future, but not to know the time and place of injury, and to suffer the disorientation of one’s situation as the effect of such speech.’ Shechter felt injured by Guevara’s tweet. Yet he chose to respond with more injurious language. To say he overreacted is an understatement. When asked how I would react to a ‘violent racist suggestion made to a Jew on Twitter’, I reply: ‘non-violently’. When asked whether I think he should simply walk away from the incident, I suggest instead using non-violence, dialogue and conversation, without using even more injurious language.

Shechter’s choreographic work too resorts to aggression. After seeing the new work he presented as part of The Associates at Sadler’s Wells in February, I vowed that I wouldn’t see another. Shechter employs an aggressive mode to address the audience. We are prevented from really seeing his dance; there is too much smoke, not enough light or too much light, making it painful for the eyes. We are not allowed to think and talk about the dance; after all, ‘it’s only a dance’ – he tells us so in this work. We are never allowed to see the dancers get into a flow of moving; instead we see them paralysed and tense. Shechter seems to dislike the dancers’ ability to move skilfully and gracefully. He devalues the training that they embody, and is concerned with undoing it and replacing it with a frantic, flailing, hunched over, uber-contracted choreography that mocks their cultivation of an elongated spine and limbs. He overpowers the dancers and treats them as docile puppets. Maybe the only thing Shechter likes is the Baroque music that drifts in and out for all too short moments. But then again, he does distort and overpower the music with white noise, so the audience is again prevented from really enjoying it. I feel judged by Shechter for seeking out an evening of entertainment and engagement with dance as art. It felt that he was teaching us a lesson. This choreography of hatred left me empty and angry. I felt injured by Shechter’s choreography. The only way in which I can respond is through writing.

Dance tends to suffer from its ephemerality and non-verbal mode of communication. It’s easy to overlook and dismiss, as there is no artefact to admire and it can be hard to translate our dance experiences into words. There is a mismatch between dance and the word, a distrust even of logocentrism. Words cannot do justice to the experience of dance. But without trying to articulate our thoughts about dance and form bridges between dance and language, we are unable to participate in politics, democracy and economies. If words are what we use to communicate with each other, we need to choose them carefully. If movement is what we use, we need to choreograph it attentively, with a generosity of spirit towards dancers and audiences. I am suggesting that the disorientation that stems from injurious language or injurious choreography is less than helpful for dance in this context. In short, I am critiquing Shechter’s mode of address.

What does it mean for Arts Council England, Sadler’s Wells and the Royal Opera House to give funding and opportunities to a choreographer who thinks nothing of injuring others in this fragile dance world? What if this choreographer indeed sees himself, his work and his discourse as untouchable? What if critics and scholars are disabled through this continuing distrust of the word? What if the supremacy of the choreographer roams free, unchecked without access to the discursive tools needed to call him up on his actions that injure others? Dance audiences are merely left to consume dances as they are churned out, without access to a critical apparatus to engage with them.

In the Twitter conversation, when I sense Shechter is finally coming around and opening up to my point of view, i.e. I’ve talked him down, I can’t resist pushing his buttons just a little more to really put things right. He keeps insisting that Cloud Dance Festival should apologise and delete the tweet. I agree with him that that might be a good idea, but then suggest he goes first. He concedes, deletes his tweet, but then simply writes ‘done’, neglecting to give an actual apology. Nevertheless, I am pleased at this outcome. The world is already filled with violence. The last place we need it is the dance world. Instead, cooperation is key. At a time when dance as an art is under threat, choreographers (edgy, rock star, enfant terrible, bad boy, or not) and dance writers need to work together to help dance survive and thrive, one moment of engagement at a time.

When a dance scholar kept a rock star choreographer in check…

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