Commissioned by Sadler’s Wells as part of 2013’s ‘String of Rites’ series, celebrating the centenary of the premiere of Stravinsky’s original, Michael Keegan-Dolan’s The Rite of Spring returns to Sadler’s Wells in a double bill with Petrushka before embarking on a UK tour. Having been reworked since last year, the production celebrates the edge and the energy in Stravinsky’s scores, yet at times it is that music rather than the choreography that seems to be doing most of the work.
In Act I, The Rite of Spring, Keegan-Dolan attempts to recreate the shock and urgency of Stravinsky’s original through violent movement and striking divergences. Beginning with unexpected lyrical song from an Irish storyteller, the action quickly gains both pace and mystery. The stark contrast between light delicacy and animalistic violence, between floral patterning and industrial neutrality, shape the talented ensemble into waves of violent energy. The animal masks donned at various points by many of the ensemble are comical at first but swiftly cross the line between cartoonish and sinister as the darkness of the piece becomes apparent.
Yet it is the music rather than movement that remains the driving force behind this depiction of rites and tribal energy. The excellent ensemble work in perfect unity, and Keegan-Dolan is skilled at shaping rhythmic, throbbing passages of dance. However, the piece doesn’t quite achieve the climactic heights it needs on stage; that comes from Stravinsky’s electrifying score, a classic now after being so experimental for its time, but still sounding vibrant and modern and wonderfully performed by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia.
Act II brings a shift in tone and atmosphere as the stage becomes startlingly clean and white for Petrushka. Keegan-Dolan’s take on Stravinsky’s tale of a Russian puppet who comes to life is more enjoyable that his Rite as it achieves more clarity in story-telling and more lyricism, even in its drama.
The ensemble create some beautiful shapes as, at first, the scene is joyful and light, with the dancers enjoying the freedom of movement. Yet this piece is all about puppetry and power struggles, and the ‘puppet master’ is always present; towering high above the ensemble, her eerie black garb is a rather predictable yet undeniably effective contrast to the whiteness of all others. Evoking Petrushka himself, the central role is danced with wonderful fluidity that evokes a marionette, but does so with subtlety rather than overt characterisation. Ensemble passages are beautifully clean and unified, conjuring both strength and grace; each dancer reacts to subtleties within the score with alterations in their movement that are delicate, yet readjust the emotional core of the piece.
The orchestra are once again on top form. As their chords spiral downwards, this fluidity shifts into a loss of control as the evocation of Petrushka – a mere echo of Stravinsky’s original in this abstract reimagining – struggles against the ensemble, never escaping the spotlight of the puppet master overhead. The white curtains, which at one point are bathed in beautiful golden light as they billow, are torn down: against the blackness, the ensemble’s white costumes and faces lose their purity and lightness and become eerie and ghost-like.
As Rachel Poirier climbs the daringly high ladder out of sight at Petrushka’s climax, the earthy animalism of The Rite of Spring seems far away, and Keegan-Dolan has achieved something more ethereal and poignant in which music and movement are now in conversation, not fight.
The Rite of Spring & Petrushka is playing at Sadlers Wells until 12 April, before embarking on a UK tour. For tickets and more information, see the Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre website.