The Rite of Spring

The Rite of Spring 
Debra Craine
The Times
London Coliseum

Even before The Rite of Spring starts, you’re in the mood for something disturbing and offbeat. Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, the first half of this ENO double bill, has seen to that. But Michael Keegan-Dolan’s savage and inspired rewrite of Stravinsky is stranger still, as exhilarating as it is harrowing.

A ritual yes, just as it was in 1913 Paris when Stravinsky’s ballet had its premiere, but a ritual imbued with the dangerous, chaotic energy of an isolated Catholic community, not a pagan Russian one. Keegan-Dolan says his production isn’t necessarily set in his native Ireland: “It’s an imagined community, a patriarchal one, somewhere in North Atlantic Europe”.

It’s winter: snow falls lightly, villagers are in coats and hats; to the side is a statue of the Virgin Mary. Three maidens arrive — symbolically — in summer frocks riding their bicycles. Presiding over all is Olwen Fouéré’s compelling queen of winter, a divine hag dressed in black and smoking a cigarette to Stravinsky. That this is a patriarchal community is never in doubt. The stage pulses with the testosterone energy of an 18-strong male gang (members of Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre). Moving in unison, they present an ensemble of searing intensity, despite the simplicity of Keegan-Dolan’s punchy, tight-knit choreography, while the music’s churning rhythms are vibrantly realised by Edward Gardner and his orchestra.

Violence erupts as knives are drawn and one man is singled out as the object of their aggression (a Christ figure?). The women are raped in a frenzy of sexual sadism; at one point their heads are covered in hare masks as if to emphasise their victim status. This is a society where impulses are out of control. In a shocking sequence the men, trousers down, roll in the earth, thrusting against it as if trying to penetrate the very soil. It’s at this point that the hag and a young boy hand out cardboard boxes to the men. Inside is a giant dog mask. Since you behave like an animal, the message is, you might as well look like one.

The sudden eruption of fear is palpable as the pack of dog-men attack the young women, killing two. And then, in a brilliant flourish, Keegan-Dolan throws a twist into the mix. A long rope of coloured fabric is unfurled only to separate into 18 women’s dresses, one for each man. The men disrobe in a kind of ritual cleansing, rejecting negative masculinity and embracing the positive of femininity as they don the frocks. The sacrificial dance is performed — in a state of exaltation — by Daphne Strothmann’s Chosen One, but it plays out against all expectation. In a stunning finale, the arrival of spring turns out to be a victory in more ways than one.

Debra Craine, The Times ★★★★★

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