Many years ago I met a young man from Tel Aviv. I asked him what it was like to live in a place where bombs regularly go off in night clubs, pizza parlors, and crowded markets. With a twinkle in his eye, he responded: “We just keep dancing between the bombs.”
This sentence has stuck with me for two decades: the uncanny juxtaposition of giddiness and tragedy, lightness and weight, life and death. The knowledge that at any moment the chaos of celebration can become the chaos of catastrophe, that the dividing line between the two is ever-shifting and horrifically unclear, and perhaps, in the end, non-existent.
Hofesh Shechter’s Grand Finale is a tour de force enactment of dancing between the bombs, a heart-rending and darkly humorous portrayal of the new normal: a world of Manchester, Paris, and Las Vegas, a world of refugees dying on boats and beaches, a world sinking like the Titanic while the musicians play on.
For most of the hour and 45-minute performance, the dancers move through smoke and dim lights, creating the impression of both distance and universality: these scenes could be unfolding in any country, in any basement, in any bar, on any ship to any new land. Masses of bodies move chaotically together, arms and legs flailing, occasionally coming into synchrony two or three or ten at a time, only to dissolve into wild abandon yet again. The dancers wear everyday work garb, and their movements alternate between pedestrian and pyrotechnic, between folkloric, rave, and modern balletic. A group of live musicians dressed in shabby tuxes is integrated into the show, appearing in the shadows and the spotlights, providing intermittent flashes of both intimacy and irony, sometimes playing in tandem with the fabulously intense electronic soundtrack, sometimes playing alone. The different sound worlds amplify our need to both engage and disengage with our various realities, to touch the pain and escape it in equal measure.
Bodies are constantly falling and being dragged across or off the stage while the mass movement continues. Over time, the presence of the fallen bodies becomes more obvious. In perhaps the most devastating moment of the work, four men drag four obviously dead women onto the stage and attempt to dance with their heavy, lifeless bodies. At first we don’t know whether to laugh or cry, but when the men finally give up and just sit on the floor and hold the dead women in an intimate embrace, rocking back and forth, the sense of loss and sorrow becomes overwhelming. Eventually the men and women stand, and the rest of the dancers join them onstage, and everyone holds absence in their arms, swaying back and forth with the emptiness that death leaves.
It seems fitting that after plumbing the depths of grief, the mood should turn to militarization, to deployment, to action. The electronic music kicks in at full force, and the dancers’ movements become powerfully martial, frightening. The sudden contrasts throughout the work between stillness and action are intoxicating.
Other moments are lighter, if sardonic. Just before intermission, the musicians start playing a plush, romantic ditty from times past, as bubbles fall from the sky on the still, bedraggled souls below, a New Year’s Eve celebration gone horribly awry. The sense of dissociation can only evoke uncomfortable laughter.
The final part of the piece is somewhat manic, like an all-night dance party in an underground bar. But at the very end, an overhead light fading on and off illuminates scenes of calmness in a narrow cell: people slumped together; a couple tenderly embracing while others, seated on the floor, watch as if it’s a movie or the past or the future. We are left with an impression of warped survival, of human resilience in the face of the apocalypse but at an infinite, unimaginable cost to our souls. As if the ship has already sunk, musicians and all, but still we continue to dance among the bombs.
Hofesh Shecter Company performs at Théâtre Maisonneuve from November 1-4 at 8pm. Tickets $66.75-$74.80, available here.