I had anticipated meeting Brighton Festival’s latest guest director in a quiet corner of the Brighton Dome foyer. But Hofesh Shechter has a better idea. “This is where you can really feel at home,” he grins, as I emerge, blinking, onto the stage of the (thankfully deserted) Concert Hall.

Well, that’s a matter of opinion. He certainly looks comfortable, lolling elegantly in a dancer’s uniform of hoodie and trainers.

But then he’s been working under these lights since 2008 when his company became the Dome’s first artists-in-residence.

It’s here that the 39-year-old choreographer introduced Brighton audiences to Uprising/In Your Rooms, the 2007 work that first made the dance world sit up and pay attention and it was here that he unveiled festival commissions including The Art of Not Looking Back (2009) and the equally lauded Political Mother.


The relationship the company has developed with local audiences is “heartwarming”, he says, and has given him the confidence to take risks with shows like Political Mother and new work Sun – an ostensibly optimistic departure from his usual depictions of conflict and struggle that opens this year’s festival.

“I made this work for an audience I knewwas walking with me.”

But that shouldn’t imply cosiness. Shechter has long considered himself an outsider and even within the sanctuary of his Dome residency, he remains interested in “rattling the walls.”

He gestures to the black sheep image on this year’s Brighton Festival cover: “I really felt like that as a kid – isolated from the pack.”

It’s a motif that runs through the programming, which is dotted with examples of “people who are out of their place” from Dmitry Krymov’s Opus 7, which looks at the plight of Jews in Eastern Europe to Northern Stage’s production of Joseph Heller’s absurd masterpiece Catch 22, in which a US airman attempts to make sense of the madness of war.

“I think the role of art is not to come with answers but to ask questions,” he says. Shechter has been asking questions since childhood.

Growing up in Jerusalem, notions of conflict and power struggle were “unavoidable”, he says. “Of course conflict is everywhere but in Israel it’s very extreme and it’s happening there and now. It made me grow up questioning social structures, power, who decided things were going to be a certain way.”

He sometimes plays down his obligatory stint doing National Service in the Israeli army but there’s no doubt it came as a shock to the system.

“In my country we are brought up with a very strong idea of freedom,” he said in an interview with The Guardian. “Then suddenly I was put into an institution that was the complete opposite of democratic, where we were running and doing shooting practice all day, and we didn’t even get to decide when to go to the toilet. It felt like an electrical short circuit in my brain.”

These experiences have all fed into his work, although he’s wary of suggesting an explicit link with his background.

While his work is often described as political, he sees it as politics with a small “p”. “I think it responds to political situations but in a highly human, emotional way. I’m not interested in talking directly about politics because I find it boring, repetitive and impossible to solve. I want to make work that moves me rather than trying to make any particular statement.”

He thinks this quest for intensity and feeling is part of the reason his work is particularly popular with young audiences.

His opening sequence for Channel 4’s teen drama Skins is still the talk of internet forums, and in 2009 he led 100 young dancers in a festival-commissioned community project Bangers & Mash.

“I think there’s something about the directness or the rawness of my work that appeals. In today’s world it’s very difficult to find anything real.

“It’s an art piece and it’s an illusion but the intention behind it is real and I think young people can feel that.” Of course it might just be a shared enthusiasm for deafeningly loud music (Political Mother had to come with a volume warning) and “cool moves”.

Shechter spent many years playing drums in rock bands in Israel and later in Paris and wishes more people would come to dance with the same attitude they come to a rock concert.

While there’s a tendency to intellectualise the form, his only message is that there isn’t any message.

“When you go to a concert it’s all about the experience. You sit there and you don’t expect to understand anything or to come away with a conclusion. But the problem with dance is that because it’s visual people try to make sense of it when really, you just need to let it happen. It’s like sex – you don’t want to think too much.”

Despite his artistic profile and his connection to Brighton, Shechter isn’t perhaps an obvious choice for guest director.

He doesn’t have the popular appeal of last year’s director Michael Rosen, nor the broadreaching influence of someone like Brian Eno (2010).

Because he’s been working in Brighton for the past five years, he feels like a familiar face, lacking the showbiz glamour of Vanessa Redgrave (2012), or the international clout of Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi (2011).

But that could be just what makes him interesting – he is, as he says himself, a black sheep.

Certainly his impact on the festival is a compelling one.

This year’s programme is noticeably more eclectic and challenging than in previous years.

As festival chief executive Andrew Comben says, he brings with him a real sense of adventure.

“I think this year’s festival will push people out of their comfort zones,” Shechter said. “And that’s a good thing. Everyone should see two or three things they wouldn’t usually go to. It’s what festivals are for.”

What will he be dipping his toe into, I wonder? “What will I see?

I’ll see everything.”

He’ll be exhausted, surely?

There are 147 events in three weeks. But he shakes his head firmly.

“No. I’ll be inspired and energised.”