Ecstatic violence

Bristol is a great place for arts, music and culture – there’s always a gig, an exhibition, a performance, a rave, a workshop, a festival, a popup gallery, a street party, or something you wouldn’t have thought of. But Bristol doesn’t have everything. One of the things I really miss about living in Oslo, is the dance scene. Ever since Dansens Hus opened in 2004, Oslo has been an exciting place to watch world class contemporary ballet, and Bristol just doesn’t compare. There are no local companies to speak of, and there’s no designated dance theatre venue in Bristol. I either have to travel to London, or wait for visiting companies to come to Bristol. 

The highlight of the performances I’ve seen so far this year, has to be Hofesh Schechter’s SHOWHofesh Shechter is among my favourite choreographers, but I had previously only seen recordings of his work, so I was very excited when The Old Vic hosted the company for two nights in May. I was not disappointed, and I even wish I’d gone to both of the performances. 

Another version of the ballet originally debuted in 2016, then under the name Clowns, but it has now been reworked to include new material. SHOW consists of three acts – The Entrance, Clowns and Exit – but since there are no breaks in between, it is experienced as one seamless piece. The score, composed by Shechter himself, also contributes to this feeling of continuity. It is a hypnotic work of music with syncopated percussive beats and repetitive, almost religious-sounding chanting, and it just goes on and on and on. 

SHOW starts quietly – with a smoky stage and a dim, orange glow from the footlights. Gradually, the eight dancers emerge through the haze with lifted arms and poses that are half classical ballet, half temple dance. The movements are restricted and slow, and it is as if we’re witnessing some sort of careful ritual. This doesn’t last for very long – suddenly it all turns into some sort of mad rave party! Then there’s elements of Middle Eastern folk dance, then vaudeville, then African dance, then circus. It doesn’t take long before it’s clear that this will be a mix of everything. 

There’s one thing that SHOW is not – and that’s “pretty”. That’s fairly common for contemporary ballet (and probably part of the reason why a lot of people find it difficult to understand or even like this art form) but Hofesh Shechter’s works tend to be really gritty. When SHOW picks up the pace, which it quickly does, there are few traditionally elegant movements. The dancer hunch and squat and shuffle, they lumber around like big animals, they fling their arms and legs violently about, they jump up and down and land hard enough to make the stage shake.

Eventually, stylized violence erupts. The dancers – dressed in white and resembling commedia dell’arte clowns – start killing each other. There’s stabbing, throat-cutting, shooting and garroting. Everyone participates, because no one ever stays dead. As soon as someone has taken a shot to the head and collapsed dramatically, they bounce right back on their feet again. They keep dancing, and then they find someone to attack, or they get killed again. 

It could be easy to jump to the conclusion that this display of endless violence and murder is in somehow meant to be a comment on “violence in society” or “violence as entertainment”, or “passivity in the face of atrocities”. Hofesh Shechter is after all a choreographer that doesn’t shy away from social matters – something he demonstrated with works such as Political MotherBut I think that it’s far more rewarding to view the violence in SHOW as one of many expressions of exhilaration. There are no personal motives behind the killings, no form of authority is driving the violence, and the dancers are not divided into victims and perpetrators. There are no power structures. Everyone is doing the killing, everyone is getting killed – and everyone keeps getting up again immediately! The violence has no consequences. Violence is just a part of the ecstasy, part of the ritual.

There is of course something unnerving about ecstatic violence. It's disorderly and forbidden. When I was watching the performance, I was reminded of strange dreams I’ve had. Some of those dreams have woken me up in a cold sweat (I have repeated execution dreams!), but some of them have also left me with a feeling of exhilaration. There is definitely something nightmarish about SHOW, but it’s an exciting nightmare. And when the curtain call comes (and comes and comes, because this is an integral part of the show itself), the claps and cheers from the audience are genuine expressions of joy and excitement – unaffected by questions like “Should I really be cheering?” SHOW might be portraying forbidden impulses, but they’re not forbidden within the universe of the performance. Morals don’t have a place here. 

When the dancers talk about the show in the video below, they do mention the darkness of what they’re acting out, but none of them seem to see it as a comment on anything. Most of all they highlight the fun and the playfulness! They underline the value of testing out extreme emotions (including “feeling nothing”), switching quickly between emotions, and allowing yourself to “be everything”.

One of them says: "Is it sad, is it dreadful, is it funny? We don’t know.”