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The Rite of Spring and Petrushka

Sadler's Wells, London

In putting these two ballets together, director-choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan would appear to be suggesting that there is a link-through in their narratives. In this production, the later composed and darker score goes first with the lighter pastoral score following.

The Rite of Spring is a stunning piece of music, wonderfully conducted here by David Brophy, with an exquisitely sure Sanja Bizjak at the piano.  Although The Rite of Spring was written as a commissioned ballet piece,  its complexity of themes, style and tone means, I think, that a strictly linear ballet narrative does not easily work; the music continuously undercuts its own themes and so, I feel , must the dance.

This production sets its story in rural Ireland. Enter a mythical witch-like figure, her hair trailing behind her almost to the ground. Behind her, cardboard boxes in their laps, are men dressed in coarse tweed suits in various shades of brown. Snow falls. Three women then appear in summer dresses and dance.  To the intense growing dissonance of the opening section, the male dancers punctuate the ground like pneumatic drills and so begins the sexual chase; this has no romance to it, but it also does not have the full ugly shock of rape, for as the women die, they rise again and the witch crowns them with rabbit heads. They are then held up as rabbit gods. The men drop their trousers and fall to the floor in an ecstasy of f**ing. The witch hands the men their boxes; inside are animal heads which they put on as the female dancers take off theirs. The dancing in this middle section is superb, and as the women, like puppets, try to rise, we see how much control goes into presenting bodies that flop and curl, and we see that this has beauty to it too, different though it is to the tightly poised frames and the rigorous designed lines we normally associate with classical ballet. The dream that inspired Stravinsky to write this piece: of a dancer who dances to her death- is here beautifully performed by (I think) Anna Kaszuba. These marks of beauty, however, are ruined for me by the men stripping and putting on women’s dresses. I’m not quite sure what this is supposed to mean. Are the men, who have been the plunderers, now the victims?  The scene is also not bold enough to be drag and though I watch the dancers with great attention, ultimately, when I leave the theatre, this is what remains with me:  much of the dancing is excellent but the direction does not have real boldness to it and there is too much coordination in the choreography (and by this I mean the repeating of patterns) which does not always sit well with the music. The music therefore, instead of being a complement to the dance, trumps at each point.

Petrushka opens with the witch figure sitting high on a pole. The dancers are now all in white and dance to the click of her fingers. The first couple who dance their love dance do so with great lightness and delicacy. They are soon joined by a second couple. Though the ending of Rites owes much to European folk music, the piece as a whole can perhaps be seen as a jazz-classical fusion. With Petrushka we are more clearly in the pastoral folk tradition. The music is sweeter and the choreography here works for me far better than it does in Rites. Towards the end, the music goes through a set of wonderful transitions and the orchestra make light work of these mercurial passages.  A cloth ladder then falls and one of the dancers, to the witch’s urging, climbs out. Blackout.

The dancing is good throughout; it is often great.  The orchestration is marvellous. I am less sure, however, about the direction.

  • Dance Theatre
  • Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre Company
  • Director and Choreographer: Michael Keegan-Dolan
  • Composer: Igor Stravinsky
  • Sadler's Wells, London
  • 11th & 12th April 2014
  • Review by Hafiza Butt
  • 11 April 2014

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