Let it all out! Tears for Fears inspire ‘utopian’ dance show

‘All around me are familiar faces / worn-out places, worn-out faces” goes the song, and a man on stage in a voluminous skirt jerks his body with the beat as Mad World fills the auditorium. LoveTrain2020 is the new show from Marseille-based Israeli choreographer Emanuel Gat, set entirely to the music of Tears for Fears. Not the usual soundtrack for contemporary dance, but if Birmingham Royal Ballet can dance to Black Sabbath (not to mention Arthur Pita’s Björk Ballet, or Marco Goecke’s Tori Amos dance piece) then why not?

Gat, 54, never owned a Tears for Fears album when he was growing up near Tel Aviv in the 1980s as a shaggy-haired surf-mad teen. “I was listening to a lot of progressive rock, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Jethro Tull,” he tells me in the green room after a show in Bruges. “But everybody knows this music, everywhere we go.”

Choreographing for 30 years, Gat is best known for works set to classical music and jazz (he studied music and originally planned to be a conductor). He’s never used pop before, and it’s all thanks to an algorithm. One day he was walking, headphones in, “and I don’t think I had it on my playlist, but for some reason Sowing the Seeds of Love started to play. I hadn’t heard it for years, and I was like, this is actually really good music! The text, the treatment of the sound, the composition, it made me curious.”

Pop is hard to work with because it’s got such a strong identity and insistent rhythm. Gat drums a 4/4 beat on the table: “It’s very powerful music, it doesn’t leave much space. It sucks the air out of the room. It was easier to choreograph to Pierre Boulez than Tears for Fears.” They got permission to use the tracks, but Gat’s not sure if band members Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal even know about it. “You go through an agency that contacts the label to get the rights, then the last part of the process is sending a personal letter to the artist, to which there was no answer,” he says. “And I thought, maybe it stops at their agent and he thinks, ‘Contemporary dance? Whatever!’ He’s not even going to bother them with it because there’s no money in it.”

He would love them to come – that’s an invitation, Curt and Roland – “But maybe they’ll come and say, oh, we don’t allow it. They can reverse the decision to grant the rights if they don’t like what they see!”

I think they’d like it. It’s not what you’d expect from dancing to pop music (although Orzabal actually does some pretty cool dancing himself in the original Mad World video). The dancers first appear to tracks from 1983’s The Hurting album, looking as if they’ve gone wild in the haberdashery, a tumble of fabric layers that give the effect of historical costume, highlighted by the Caravaggio contrasts in the lighting. Later, when we get to Everybody Wants to Rule the World and Shout, they’re stripped to their underwear, posing in 2D as if in bas-relief, or hand-in-hand like Matisse’s dancers.

If you’ve only ever half-listened to the hits on the radio, the music reveals itself as surprisingly dark, eerie and emotive. The dance is unpindownable. Gat’s not interested in just dancing on the beat, that’s too easy: “So effective that as a viewer it shuts your brain off,” he says. “You become passive. In front of something like this I feel very manipulated.” He wants his dance “with some kind of question mark, not an exclamation mark”.

There’s no one style or technique; the work is created by Gat setting tasks for the dancers who improvise within a framework. In fact Gat balks at the ego of choreographers who create dance based on their own particular way of moving and then ask dancers to imitate. “You have a really specific way of moving and then the people that manage to copy you the best, they are the winners? Whoa, you have a problem,” he laughs.

Gat’s job, choreography, “is just organising actions and interactions in time and space, that’s all”. And yet for him, the studio becomes a microcosm of the world and its structures and systems. “I understand the world by understanding choreography,” he says. “My subject matter is people, groups, and it’s easy to find the analogies about why society behaves the way it does.”

For example, economics, he explains, is about resources, and how you control and distribute them. In the studio, the creative decision-making is the resources. Gat can choose to keep hold of all the decisions and hand down instructions, or share the responsibilities. “It’s easy to tell if the system is functioning in rehearsal, because they’re smiling,” he says. “If they look like they’re suffering, something’s wrong. Life is the same. If we have 1% controlling resources, individuals with more resources than whole countries, it doesn’t make sense. That’s why we have misery.” Mad world indeed.

“I put the dancers in a position that is active,” Gat says. “In which they can own the responsibility for their decisions, and as a consequence they become free. Then I look at our society and I think, yeah, that’s why we’re fucked.” So he’s creating utopia on stage for an hour or so? “Absolutely.”

• LoveTrain2020 is at Sadler’s Wells, London, 17-18 November

• Lyndsey Winship’s trip to Bruges was provided by Sadler’s Wells