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Hofesh Shechter in rehearsal

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Will Gompertz | 10:19 UK time, Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Hofesh Shechter doesn't think like most people. The Israeli-born British-domiciled choreographer talks of butterflies, Quasimodo, farmers and DJs - all in the hushed, gentle tone that is his natural speaking voice. And all addressed to his dancers, who look intently at him as they try to interpret the master's instructions.

"Reach up to the sky, then pull your arms down from the sky and into your stomach like a butterfly," he suggests after stopping a scene because he was unhappy with the movement of the dancers. Those of us watching this intimate rehearsal look on bemused and amused. What will they make of that piece of choreographic direction? The answer is: sense.

Shechter moves away, starts to count to eight and then the dancers suddenly animate like a car getting a jump start. In unison they do indeed reach to the sky and pull their hands to their stomachs like butterflies. It is extraordinary to behold.

Ten or so athletic young people move as a unit around the studio with a power controlled and harnessed by their own physicality and by the will of the tall, thin, authoritative figure of Hofesh Shechter, the creator of the famous dance sequence in Channel 4's teen drama Skins. My Newsnight profile of him is below.

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I haven't sat in on such a dance class since the early 1980s when I worked at Sadler's Wells as a stage-hand. What is now the Birmingham Royal Ballet was then called the Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet. Although their main purpose was to tour, the dancers spent large chunks of the year rehearsing at "the Wells" and didn't mind if we looked on as we ate our sandwiches.

Stage-hands aren't often in the news, but they managed it this week. A headline in this weekend's Observer read "Top theatre hit by claims of drunken abuse". I read on. It tells the story of a stage-hand for the West End production of War Horse who claimed he was picked on after "blowing the whistle on an alleged culture of drunkenness and racism". Not a lot has changed since I did the job, then.

Being part of a stage crew is a lively experience. The people with whom I worked were tough and could quickly become rough if their instructions were not followed to the letter. Many had come from the Navy; at the time the Sadler's Wells was a "hemp house" - that is, ropes and not an electric mechanism operated the fly tower above the stage - and they ran things in a quasi-military fashion. They were good blokes, but the wise did as they were told.

I don't recall any racism, but was there drunkenness? I should cocoa. If I remember rightly, the nearest pub to the stage door was the Shakespeare's Head. We were in there a great deal. In fact, the rule was that if you weren't working, you were in there. And "working" did not include "on duty": "working" was physically pulling some 30-foot piece of scenery onto the stage. So while the dancers danced, we drank. How did we know when we were needed? Simple: the pub had a bell. When required, the bell would sound in the pub and we'd all jump to it.

We weren't the only ones in there. In the corner, enjoying a glass of cold white wine, always happy to talk to anyone, would often be seen the great choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton and even on occasion Dame Ninette de Valois, the great dancer who performed with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes before founding the Royal Ballet and the Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet.

I never heard either of these legends talk of butterflies or farmers, but I am quite sure they would have been just as entranced as I was last night by Hofesh Shechter and his dancers.

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