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Choreographer’s Political Mother is oppression writ large

Political Mother
Hofesh Shechter Company, presented by Canadian Stage
At Bluma Appel Theatre

Choreographed and composed by Hofesh Shechter

Thank goodness for Canadian Stage artistic director Matthew Jocelyn.

Jocelyn sees as his mandate a focus on "the most ground-breaking and powerful productions from Canada and around the world." Happily, this includes dance.

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This year, Jocelyn is showcasing choreographers Hofesh Shechter and Marie Chouinard. Last year, it was Chouinard and Crystal Pite.

Packed houses suggest that Jocelyn is onto a good thing, even though theatre purists may carp. What's interesting is that each of the dance companies has a strong theatrical component, which probably is the factor attracting Jocelyn's attention.

Which brings us to Shechter.

The couple beside me walked out of Political Mother. Before they left, the woman had whispered to her companion that the choreography was repetitious. What the two might not have realized was that with each repetition Shechter was ramming another nail into the coffin of human misery.

Clearly the screaming (yes, screaming) fans who leapt to their feet at the end of the piece got it. And it wasn't just the younger set who responded to Shechter's harrowing, rock-infused (he used to be a drummer) vision of the world. A number of senior citizens made sure to tell me how wonderful the show was.

Israeli-born, London-based Shechter is a current darling of European contemporary dance. Astonishingly, he has only nine works under his belt. He started to choreograph in 2003, and it was his third work, Uprising (2006), that catapulted him onto the world stage. That seminal piece for seven men, a searing depiction of male violence, established Shechter's choreographic signature.

Political Mother (2010), Shechter's first full-length work, is performed by 10 dancers, seven live musicians, and seven string players on a recorded soundtrack. Shechter is also the composer, working with musical collaborators Nell Catchpole (strings) and Yaron Engler (percussion). The score includes selections from Verdi, Bach, Joni Mitchell and film composer Cliff Martinez.

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The solemn chorus from Verdi's Requiem that begins Political Mother is eclipsed by pounding drums and wailing electric guitars. The musical assault is a natural. What emerges choreographically is a dark look at oppression.

Shechter has famously said that he had to get away from Israel to find a quiet place to think about his art. He may have found his sense of tranquillity in England, but his works are anything but peaceful.

Political Mother is a dark series of vignettes. It's important to understand the visuals to get a feel for the piece. Shechter's set design is two-tiered. The guitars are above, and the drums below. Also on top are several incarnations of a dictator (dancer Bruno Karim Guilloré). Lee Curran's brilliant, pin-spot lighting design brings the musicians and the dictator in and out of focus as if by magic.

And then there are the dancers, who move from one pitiful existence to another. They are down below, always aware of the dictator towering above them. Costume designer Merle Hensel has variously garbed them as concentration-camp victims, mindless youth at dance clubs, or peasants doing a folk dance.

No matter what the scene, they always revert back to their downtrodden demeanour, hands raised up in supplication, their feet executing a defeated shuffle. Others may find the ending hopeful, but I am not among them. Political Mother is melancholy writ large.

There is one bit of humour. Toward the end of the piece, a sign lights up in sections. First we see: "Where there is pressure." Then, "there is." And finally, "folkdance." The sentiment did get a rueful laugh from the audience.

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Political Mother is a dance piece that hits below the belt. Metaphorically speaking, the combination of howling music and poignant choreography could be ripped from today's headlines.

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