Review: Doom, Doom Everywhere (and Just a Drop of Joy)

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Rachel Fallon, center, and other members of the Hofesh Shechter Company in “Grand Finale.” Credit Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

Moment by moment, Hofesh Shechter’s “Grand Finale” looks masterly. All the imagery is attention-grabbing; frequently the stage shows three or more different sequences at once. Though the dancing features no academic virtuosity, it’s often forceful. The 10 performers seem driven by intense energies that combine folk dance with expressionism — and they look impressively sincere.

Everything in “Grand Finale,” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, looks and sounds doom-laden, even the occasional outbursts of happiness. Bodies often look lifeless, sometimes while others lift or support them. In one section, silent screams abound. Tom Visser’s apocalyptic lighting — penetrating from above as if through clouds of smoke or dust — is grimly picturesque. Tom Scutt’s décor, with tall rectangular screens moving around the stage like silhouetted walls, makes the space dramatic. The dancers are dressed to look modern, everyday, devoid of artifice. This is plotless dance-theater, a collage in different moods.

At regular intervals, six musicians appear in various parts of the stage, playing calmly or sweetly despite the scenes of devastation elsewhere; they’re the band on the Titanic. (When the audience returns from intermission, they’re still blithely playing Franz Lehar’s “Merry Widow” waltz and a corpselike figure remains unmoved beneath the curtain.) Taped music includes rhythmic thuds, fiercely percussive rock-style beats, and fragments of classical music by Tchaikovsky and Vladimir Zaldwich. (The overall score is Mr. Shechter’s own; the mixture of live music and taped sound, of familiar music and modern sonorities, characterizes much of his work.)

You can see why Mr. Shechter has been a successful collaborator in many theatrical productions: He’s good on the overlap between life’s joys and doom, as seen in his atmospheric contributions in 2015 to both the Broadway production of “Fiddler on the Roof” and the Royal Opera staging of Gluck’s “Orphée et Eurydice.”

His own productions, however, are disagreeably manipulative. In “Grand Finale,” several of his images are far from original. Samuel Beckett used the “Merry Widow” waltz amid a scene of desolation as a concluding stroke in “Happy Days.” Other events in this production have long been clichés. The band on the Titanic is a stock device. As for those silent screams, see Munch, Brecht and Kenneth MacMillan, among others.

Worse than being unoriginal, though, “Grand Finale” soon becomes an array of mere effects. Both its fleeting happiness and its pervasive devastation turn into theatrical devices, coldly compiled like filmic montage. And those sincere dancers turn into pawns in Mr. Shechter’s controlling game.

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