The ringmaster trying to get us to cheer at the beginning of Hofesh Shechter’s Clowns is being as brazenly ironic as the piece itself. On the one hand, he asks us to celebrate the company’s life-affirming return to the stage. On the other, Clowns is essentially a killing spree that unabashedly presents itself as entertainment.
To a cancan fanfare, the dancers arrive like a bunch of jesters, all high kicks and big smiles. Almost immediately they start enacting sudden, stylised murders of every kind – throats slit, brains shot, chests speared, necks throttled, stomachs sliced – one after another after another, each one slotted neatly into carnival caperings and circus-ring flourishes. The contrast is so blatant that you wonder if you are seeing it right.
You are: the work is built entirely on this sarcastic mesh of violence and showmanship. Shechter’s feral, loping style, his deft switches between taut formations and ragged clusters, adds to the queasy fascination. True, by the end of the extended curtain call Shechter has perhaps flogged this choreographic horse close to death; yet even here the work remains ghoulishly gripping, and ominous as hell.
Clowns premiered in 2016, since when the world has arguably moved beyond the reach of theatrical irony. Certainly Shechter’s new work, The Fix, created as an antidote to Clowns, was motivated by more idealistic goals: hope and help. It still bears the Shechter hallmarks of hunches and flails, the crowd-mentality effect of his focus on groups more than individuals, but the tone now is sincere.
The engrossing opening scene feels like a raft in a storm, the seven dancers forming a scrabbling, unstable crew, in danger of falling apart but trying to keep everyone together. The collective spirit re-emerges, rather hippyishly, in a freeform folk dance around a mimed guitarist, and more hippyishly still in a scene of cosmic meditation.
Then, one man seems to die, his body racked with spasms as the others hold him firmly, not in restraint but in succour. Finally, the dancers follow the departing man into the audience and, masked and sanitised, offer us hugs. I got one, too, critic’s notebook and pen still in hand. Honestly, it was really nice.