Shechter’s high-energy work Grand Finale, which comes to the Sydney Opera House
after its Australian premiere at Adelaide Festival, segues between a tribalistic
celebration of life and dystopian shadows. At one point, some dancers suddenly turn limp and lifeless, their bodies choreographed across the stage by fellow dancers.
Oppressive concrete-looking blocks tower over them all. Musicians play at various places on the stage. Shechter credits designer Tom Scutt for making an association with a string ensemble that reportedly sank with the Titanic while playing the hymn Nearer My God to Thee: musicians are “holding the human flame together”, playing with dignity, unaffected while human chaos reigns around them.
Shechter says Grand Finale, a 2018 Olivier Award and 2019 Helpmann Award nominee, is a “twisted mirror or perhaps a poetic mirror” of our time.
Metaphors for environmental and political collapse have been read by critics into the piece. The sections with “lifeless” dancers’ bodies have been taken for refugees who die seeking to cross borders.
Growing up, Shechter’s Jerusalem home, close to Palestinian villages, was marked by “conflict just around the corner” and life was one of “constant hysteria”. He has happy memories of playing football in the sun but also recalls the single television channel regularly interrupting programs to read the names of soldiers killed in attacks.
Called up for national service at 18, he served two years. Accepted into the Tel Aviv-based Batsheva Dance Company’s junior ensemble meant a “Dr Jekyll, Mr Hyde-type life”. By morning he was free to dance in a studio; afternoons and evenings were spent in uniform as an army clerk, obeying instructions. “I hated my service, though it was not life-threatening,” he says.
In his mid-20s, Shechter moved to London. “I wanted out,” he says. “The political tension, that hysteria … I felt a strong sense of futility inside that society. The murder of [prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin [in 1995] and the elections just after, I was so shocked by the result. Someone pulled a gun and killed the prime minister, and it worked. It felt like the bad guys won.
“Also, it’s a small country, Israel, and the dance scene, you feel like there’s not a lot of breathing space.”
Today, Shechter has a “light connection” with Israel, taking his children there annually to see family.
The 2016 Brexit vote to withdraw from the European Union was “a smack, an insult”, he says. “I immigrated here, and I feel like I give back a lot to the society and culture here. It took me a few days to calm down and realise it’s just the way things are.”
Receiving an Honorary OBE for services to dance in 2018 was “a bit of mending”, he says. “For a moment, it made me very proud and happy to be in a society that can recognise someone, even someone who was not born here.”
Grand Finale is at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House from January 29 to
Steve Dow is an arts writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.