Hofesh Shechter: From England With Love; International Draft Work – review

<span>‘Unbelievably committed’: the dancers of Shechter II in From England With Love.</span><span>Photograph: Todd MacDonald</span>
‘Unbelievably committed’: the dancers of Shechter II in From England With Love.Photograph: Todd MacDonald

Under a smoky spotlight a group of young people assembles in approximations of school uniform, crests on their blazers, rucksacks on their backs. They look like any raggle-taggle bunch of youngsters anywhere, scruffy and relaxed. Then, as Elgar’s Nimrod soars on the soundtrack, they raise their arms in delicate attitudes, sweeping circles where the hands are at first gracefully curved, before gradually morphing into pointing fingers and clenched fists.

Each gesture is perfectly smooth and precisely calibrated. As the sound of driving rain replaces music, the group is off, crossing the stage in a rolling, slo-mo flow, cheeks puffed out, hands over their scalps, writhing, hopping, waggling their heads, both wild and classically shaped. It’s movement that feels compulsive, and it represents both the strengths and the limitations of Hofesh Shechter’s approach.

A boy is frozen in the position of choking; couples smooch drunkenly; a body is dragged across the stage

Ever since he first burst on to the contemporary scene in 2006, the London-based Israeli choreographer has been mining an unmistakable magpie style of fluent dance and serious subject matter. In From England With Love, his new piece for his junior company, Shechter II, he takes on nothing less than the fractured state of this country, torn between tradition and modernity, dignity and in-yer-face decay.

Using a soundtrack that mingles Purcell and Abide With Me with drums and electronica, and with superb lighting by Tom Visser that constantly shifts the temperature from warm to stark, Shechter creates a series of tableaux of despairing hedonism. In one section, the dancers repeatedly chant “My mind is my mind” as they propel themselves around the stage in attitudes of violent assertion. In another, darkness alternates with bright white light, revealing scenes of struggle, cannibalism, sex, each passing in the blink of an eye. A boy is frozen in the position of choking; couples smooch drunkenly; a body is dragged across the stage.

Every grouping is carefully sculpted, full of detail. Every movement clearly means something to Shechter, but the mood doesn’t change enough to indicate alternative views of England. There are glimpses of country dancing, of shooting parties and a final, wonderful pause to listen to birdsong. But the tone is unrelentingly gloomy and even at an hour long, the piece becomes repetitive rather than revealing.

What redeems it is the dancers, all eight of them, energetic and unbelievably committed. Their exertion, skill and sheer endurance make it impossible to tear your eyes away. It’s thrilling and visceral, but ultimately frustrating.

International Draft Works at the Royal Opera House is an annual opportunity for aspiring choreographers from around the world to try their hand at making short works for their home companies. This year’s programme, featuring companies from Dresden, Flanders, Korea, Norway, Paris and Brno as well as the Royal Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet and Scottish Ballet, was full of strong emotion, interesting ideas and slightly timid musical choices.

A version of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata provided the background to a sensational duet by Paris Opera Ballet’s Florent Melac, full of unexpected turns and adventurous lifts, beautifully danced by him and Clémence Gross. The Royal Ballet’s Matthew Ball contributed To & Fro, another sophisticated duet for himself and Mayara Magri with movement inspired by a pendulum and music by Resphigi.

The most ambitious piece was Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Tetra, a smart, snappy quartet with choreography by Lachlan Monaghan to Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E flat major, which took overly familiar music and used it to conjure something glittering and strange.

Star ratings (out of five)
From England With Love
International Draft Works ★★★