Casual and contemplative, Hofesh Shechter saunters into the sanctuary of the West Side Jewish Center. He’s feeling out his surroundings, much like he did with his Tony-nominated work for Fiddler. He’s still learning about the world of Broadway, having started his career with Batsheva Dance Company and now his own. The Israeli-born, U.K.-based choreographer—though less familiar with theatre—is eager to learn about the world that has recently charmed him and offered him a Tony nod for his Broadway debut.
Did you grow up knowing Fiddler on the Roof?
HS: Yeah, I knew Fiddler on the Roof. When I was maybe seven or eight I became aware of it through seeing the film—the American film.
So, I have to say I grew up with it, but did not always love it, and I think part of the reason I loved this production was your choreography. It was so grounded in the message of it. What was your approach when you first got asked to do it?
HS: Well, I don’t know much about the musical theatre world, actually, and, you know, I grew up studying music—classical music—and playing the piano, and then started dancing and got into contemporary dance. Musical theatre was not something I was very educated [about]. I wasn’t sure I would ever do a musical, actually, and when I was offered Fiddler on the Roof I was very excited.
I love the music, and I love the story, and I love the connection it has to my roots. I’m from Israel and my ancestors…I have family that comes from Odessa. I love Shalom Aleichem [author of Fiddler’s source material Tevye and his Daughters]. It felt that it’s a play that has some weight to it with beautiful music. For me, music is the most important thing when I come and create a dance, and also knowing Bart Sherr, the director, and he came with a vision that I really liked and the vision was: It’s raw; it’s direct; it’s in the shtetl. You feel, you know? Something about the dance is not dance-y as much, but it has to feel like the real people are really there doing the dance, and I really loved that approach. In that sense it gave me complete freedom. But, I have to say, I did very little preparation for it. I felt an instant connection to the music, an instant connection to the subject, that subject of past and present and tradition and how do we move on?
You get that flavor in the dance.
I started dancing actually with folk dancing so that was how I started dancing and then got into contemporary dance. You can see in the work, from something that has the folksiness in it, but also has something extremely contemporary and of the now. I think the existence of that in me, it was already there, and I just had to connect to the music and let that information come out, and I think that that’s why it also connected so well with the piece, with Fiddler on the Roof, with the play itself. It was quite a natural connection.
Like you said, it’s not a dance-heavy show, but the movement obviously has so much meaning in it. For this being your first musical theatre piece and telling a story through multiple songs from beginning to end, what was important for you to get into the mind of Tevye and Anatevka and connect the characters to that movement?
HS: Again, I think the music. Music is so powerful here in actually creating the right atmosphere in each part. Bart was very inspiring in giving direction to what’s happening with the characters and what’s the energy in each part and how it carries the story.
Had you worked with Bart before?
HS: Yeah, I worked with Bart before. We did Two Boys of Nico Muhly in the Metropolitan Opera, and that’s the first time we worked together, and it was nice and smooth, and Bart is amazing.
What about knowing that Jerome Robbins was the one who choreographed the original? Did that come into your head at all?
HS: Jerome who? [Laughs] You know, sometimes it’s good to not think about something too much, and with this one I was just not thinking about it too much. Every person would ask me, “Well, aren’t you nervous about it?’”You know, actually the answer that I gave you now was the thought I was trying to concentrate on when I was creating it: Connect to the music. Connect to what I know about culture.
I’ve seen Jerome’s version. It’s highly inspiring, and it’s part of the cultural learning that I did, but then I had to be in a place where I’m free. Maybe it was a way of not dealing with the pressure; I just didn’t go there, but also I felt the Wedding Dance and the Bottle Dance…there were places where I was like, “There is no point. I’m not going to do something new just for the sake of it.” I want to do something that is connected to myself, that is connected to the now, connected to this group of people we’re working with, these really talented dancers and cast, and when we go to the wedding I thought, “Well, the Bottle Dance, that’s completely still current and amazing,” and we sort of did a Bottle Dance version 2.0, but so much of it is actually Jerome. Denial is a good thing sometimes. He did something great and now I have to do something new and just did.
You start with “Tradition,” and you have all that weight and stomping, and when you get to “To Life” and the Russians dance it’s buoyant and airy. What it was like to work with those two different ensembles, and what it was like in the room to work with your cast?
HS: I have to say the energy in the studio was amazing. It was part of the things that surprised me about working with musical theatre, and I don’t know if it’s always like that or it’s because of that play. There was a family feeling or a tribe feeling there that was very powerful. It was supportive, completely non-competitive. ... The singers, actors that have less experience in dance took them a bit more time to get into it, but ... it always felt flowing.
It also sounds like it was very hands-on in that moment.
HS: Dance is about making the best with what you’ve got in the room and that material is human beings, the people that are in front of you. You must connect to them and you must see that they are connecting to what you’re doing. You can’t impose on them. I mean, you can, but if you want the energy to be raw and real and to carry something that is actually, without being too spiritual, emotional in a way, something that they actually carry, something that they care about, then you have to use them. It’s always important to pay attention to who is in the room and whether they’re connecting to it or not and how to get them involved, so it was very much about the group power.
Would you do musical theatre again?
HS: There are no places I mind going or not going. It’s all about whether it’s right, whether I feel that I’m connecting to the music, whether I feel like I’m connecting to the story. If I don’t, there is no point. With Fiddler it was a perfect match, and I felt it all along and that’s what it so harmonious and fluid and flowing. Perhaps the fact that I’m not coming from musical theatre meant that I didn’t try to slot into preconceptions of how dance should look like in musical theatre. I was making the piece as I thought it should be without knowing exactly what people expect.
Do you think there’s a difference between what is dance and what is choreography?
HS: There is a difference. Choreography is a complicated art form of arranging movements in time and space in order to create a feeling. You can create a feeling by creating something amazing, spectacular, but that’s a very two-dimensional thing. If you want to create a more layered experience that is touching people in deeper places, that reminds them of things, that makes them think and feel, then that’s an art form, and I suppose that’s what people are looking at when they’re looking at choreography. They’re not looking at how skillful necessarily the dancers are and the dancing is, but at how skillful the way it’s all put together. It’s like looking at a picture, an art. There are pictures that are painted with extreme skill that transform and transfer amazing emotions and you have pictures that are painted with very basic skills and yet they’re really powerful. So, it’s not about the skill of the technique that was put into the painting, but how it made you feel. But, anyway, judging art is extremely complicated and debatable thing.
And here you are nominated for an award!
HS: I know! I take in proportion. [Laughs] All in context. It is really exciting.
Check out more original photos and interviews with the other four Tony-nominated choreographers.
Ruthie Fierberg is the Features Editor at Playbill.com. She has also written for Backstage, Parents and American Baby. See more at ruthiefierberg.com and follow her on Twitter at @RuthiesATrain.