The Rite of Spring/Petrushka
It is a 100 years since the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. One hundred years since that famous opening in Paris when a near riot broke out and modern dance was born.
It was one of the most dramatic nights in the entire history of ballet, with Stravinsky rushing backstage distraught at the reaction; Nijinsky in his role as choreographer shouting the steps from the wings, trying to make the dancers hear the rhythms over the catcalls and jeers from the audience; the dancers, in hot and heavy costumes and wigs, labouring through the ritualistic, pigeon-toed poses.
Reproduced today, the actual ballet looks quaint and strange. It is the music which still contains the shock of the new, the authentic thrill of genius. And it is the music that is being celebrated in centenary events around the world, including revivals of the many ballets based on it.
For its part, Sadler’s Wells has decided to commission “a string of rites” – three works inspired by Stravinsky and this defining score. The season kicks off with Michael Keegan-Dolan and his Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre in an interpretation first seen in 2009 but much reworked here.
Set to the piano version for four hands, played by sisters Lidija and Sanja Bizjak, the action of this rite takes place in a benighted Irish village, where the arrival of a shamanic figure Olwen Fouéré triggers a sequence of violent and sexually explicit sacrifices which precipitate the arrival of spring, symbolised by everyone stripping and then putting on floral frocks. An old man gets murdered, the ground gets humped, and people put on and remove animal heads.
Keegan-Dolan is a skilful creator of fluid and rhythmic dance and there are striking sequences – the unified wide-legged jumping with cardboard boxes, the way the chosen maiden flies in frightened shapes through the air, the shaping of the totemic dance at the close – and some strong images.
But overall the piece lacks the clarity and rugged drama of his best work; it seems to fight the momentum of the music. The action feels dwarfed by the sound rather than developing in response to it – and the same problem besets the second piece, a new response to Petrushka, composed in 1911.
Keegan-Dolan seems to be contrasting the earthiness of Rite with more ethereal images here as his excellent cast cavort more or less in unison, waving their arms and wiggling their legs. One by one they cover their faces in white make-up, like puppets or perhaps the souls of the blessed. It is hard to tell from the repetitive movement which is monochrome, like the set.
A technical hitch on the first night brought Keegan-Dolan rushing onto the stage like a conjuror; a rare moment of excitement in a work of empty grace. Disappointing.
Sarah Crompton, The Telegraph ★★★