tue 16/07/2024

The Rite of Spring & Petrushka, Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, Sadler's Wells | reviews, news & interviews

The Rite of Spring & Petrushka, Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, Sadler's Wells

The Rite of Spring & Petrushka, Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, Sadler's Wells

Dance theatre at full throttle in two contemporary takes on Ballets Russes classics

The Irish folk song, 'On yonder hill there sits a hare', sung by Mikel Murfi at the beginning of the evening, sends visual echoes through Fabulous Beast's 'Rite of Spring'.© Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre

Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring captures the pulsing terror of seasonal change, the relentless onward drive of nature that brings death closer even as life burns at its most ferocious. The 1913 première of the ballet created by Vaslav Nijinsky infamously caused a riot in its Parisian audience. Michael Keegan-Dolan’s version for his company Fabulous Beast has terrifying dog heads and men furiously humping the ground.

So if you were tripping merrily through London on a mild evening, heart lifted by the April light and the work-week’s end, you might well think that your mood would be better matched by a few drinks outside, or the contemplation of cherry blossom against the cooling crepe-paper sky, than by a trip to Sadler’s Wells to see Keegan-Dolan’s Rite and Petrushka.

But oh, how happily wrong you would be! This double bill is just the thing for any mood and season - dance theatre at its fullest throttle, enthralling and rewarding, even better than drinks on pavements and cherry blossom (or at least worth deferring them for). Keegan-Dolan is a rarely gifted dancemaker and in this Stravinsky two-parter he gets so many things absolutely right that this critic left wreathed in smiles; if I could, I’d scrawl big red Biro ticks over it all, cheerful as a schoolteacher on the last day of term.

First, music: a live orchestra! Praise be. Even the inevitable Sadler’s Wells amplification was (from the front stalls at least) not irritating enough to detract from the pleasure of hearing the first notes, so like the first pale rays of an ancient morning, in the always-strange timbre of real oboes and real bassoons. After a slightly timid opening, David Brophy and the players of the Royal Ballet Sinfonia delivered a fine, crisp performance – no holding back on those drums in the Rite – and wrung some really delicious, unusual sweetness from Petrushka.

Rae Smith's dog heads in Fabulous Beast's Rite of SpringKeegan-Dolan’s Rite captures a violent and sacrificial mood without following too linear a story. Indeed, that’s one of its beauties: violence erupts in unexpected directions, and those who seemed safe – the grave older man who sits apart – become its victims, while the Chosen One is attacked but seems not to die, finishing instead with arms uplifted – triumphant? Mob violence is mostly perpetrated by the group of hard-faced men, in flat caps and woollen trousers like some Great Depression dole queue, but – lest we get too comfortable with our notions of gender – women can join in. Cross-dressing also undermines gender binaries: a woman hides among the men, while they eventually shed their trousers (and boxers) for floral dresses.

I intensely admire Keegan-Dolan’s instinct for drawing back: to present men as dogs, in Rae Smith’s delicate and horrifying pitbull masks (pictured above right), while women wear hare heads with anxious glass eyes is hyperbole in waiting, but the animal heads are gone again in minutes – shock value intact, tedium avoided. Always, inspired touches pre-empt cliché: to mime rape, men lie sideways across women’s legs; as the men simulate jackrabbit sex with the ground (a Nijinsky move which scandalised Paris in 1912’s L’Après-midi d’un faune), the women’s blank hare eyes look almost quizzical, and we revise – again – our ideas about who the victims are in all of this.

The dance language has a freshness that suggests originality even in what is not original. Rhythmic stamping practically defines the Rite of Spring (Nijinsky reportedly spent days teaching his dancers to do it right), but Keegan-Dolan’s men still startle as they add their angry feet to Stravinsky’s drums, his Chosen One still moves us as she stamps wide-legged (like a haka) and with her frantic arms suggests the giving of her body to the rite (pictured below left).

Anna Kaszuba as the Chosen One in Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre's Rite of SpringPetrushka shows just as much sensitivity and invention. The original has a blacked-up Moor; Keegan-Dolan has dancers’ faces smeared, one by one, in white paint. The magician and market-place are replaced by a serene – or sinister – witch-like woman who sits high on a platform, and white fabric walls that recall a prison yard. Nothing is clear; everything is allusion, and all the richer for it, as numbers are thrown down, three characters like the original Petrushka’s puppets seem to be chosen, then melt into the crowd again again, drums are beaten, searchlights shone, and Mikel Murfi emerges from a bag in his underwear. What sounds fractured in the retelling is in performance tied together gorgeously by the joy of Stravinsky’s score and the energy of constant movement. There is joy and poignancy, and Rachel Poirier’s dark-eyed Petrushka climbs up a ladder into heaven in an ending all the more cathartic for being so utterly simple.

This double bill is everything a night of contemporary dance theatre should be: uplifting, cathartic, stylish, intelligent, performed with a live orchestra, and running to a tight 90 minutes. Go and see it – and hope it comes back next spring.

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