The Rite of Spring/Petrushka
Michael Keegan Dolan created a tremendous version of The Rite of Spring for his Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre in the English National Opera season at the Coliseum in 2009. Now, to open a brief London visit, he brings a Stravinskian companion piece, giving the first performance of Petrushka in a double-bill with Rite, the scores paired in piano-duet arrangements played superbly by the sisters Lidia and Sanja Bizjak.
But here, it became apparent, is a central problem for Keegan Dolan as choreographer. In Rite he proposed an Irish peasant community whose animalistic traditions – played out in a snowy winter ceremony with hare and hounds, copulation with the frozen earth and women’s frocks as sacred robes – were enduring in their sacramental rules, and proved a brilliant response to Stravinsky’s dramatic programme. The effects, even now with changes in the number of participants and a smaller stage, remain compelling: the dance lives in its score with entire inevitability.
And this is where his new Petrushka failed for me. The music is saturated with the bustle and folk traditions of the Butter Week Fairs in St Petersburg in the 1830s. Admiralty Square, with its golden spire, dominates the score as it does Alexandre Benois’ designs. Here is the most Russian of music, historically atmospheric, resonant of time and place. Keegan Dolan proposes five men and five women, dressed in basic white (frocks, shirts, trousers), who dance energetically to the music. Why they do so is unfathomable. Is that grand artist Olwen Fouéré, the village wise woman in Rite and here skied on a six-metre perch beside the proscenium arch, a controlling Fate, like the Charlatan who commands Petrushka’s destiny? In the first scene she rejects, with a dismissive “non”, pairings-off among the cast.
The dancers are driven boldly onward and without evident purpose, daub their faces with white paint, while the score’s imagery nips at their heels, unregarded. A rope ladder finally descends from the flies and a woman climbs upwards – freed, like Petrushka atop his booth when his ghost makes a long nose at the Charlatan, destined for some better fate. Below, alas, memories of the Butter Week Fair tremendously, inevitably persist.
Clement Crisp, Financial Times ★★★★