For starters, here we have two of the most impactful and memorable pieces of ballet music ever written, IMHO; Stravinsky at his best. Petrushka’s bright and breezy tunes constantly interrupted by chords of danger and threat; Rite of Spring’s mixture of mournful introversion and brash domination jockeying for position. Two pieces that gain massive energy from the alternate light and shade within their composition.
The first night of the Rite of Spring of course famously sparked a riot in the audience, between opposing factions of balletomanes who wanted either super-traditional or super-trendy. The super-traditionals lost out. I wonder how that 1913 audience would have coped with Fabulous Beast’s version? I’m sure the super-trendies would have been gobsmacked. The super-traditionals would have had to be sedated.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I’d prefer to see a brave failure on stage rather than a lazy success. This production of the Rite of Spring is certainly experimental, brave, and challenging and doesn’t take unnecessary liberties with Nijinsky and Diaghilev’s original vision for its choreographic structure and content. In many ways it’s a very credible and modern twist on an old tale. I guess I should state at this point that there was a post-show talk at the Oxford Playhouse on Tuesday night but that Mrs Chrisparkle and I had no time to stay for it. So it is entirely possible that interpretations, motivations, inspirations and much more regarding what we saw on that stage were explained and discussed with everyone that remained; and that any comments I make about the show are way off the mark because I missed out on vital bits of information. However, I do also think that if you need a post-show talk to explain to you what the show was about, the show hasn’t done its job properly in the first place. Whatever, both Nijinksy’s and Michael Keegan-Dolan’s version begin with a musical introduction, have an old woman at the heart of the ritual, have young dancing girls, groups of apparently rival tribes, and a Sage character; and both culminate in the sacrifice of one of the young girls as part of a pagan fertility rite.
However, I think that’s about as far as you can draw similarities. Fabulous Beast’s version is littered with disturbingly violent scenes – one when the group of men turn on the one woman in their midst; another when they attack the old man; and another again when they strip the girl who will be the sacrificed down to her underwear. It’s always savage, feverish, and determined; like a pack of wild animals showing its prey no mercy. Knives are plunged into the front of the stage and remain there as icons of violence. Keegan-Dolan gives us some representation of the traditional hunt: the girls put on hare masks, the men wear dog masks – and very effective they are too at depicting these animals, with their long dog tongues lolloping hungrily in search of their targets. There’s a scene when the men are wearing their dog masks, but with their trousers undone and dropped down to the floor – and they’re just waiting around, vulgarly, for the next stage of their mating ritual. It’s a very disconcerting but memorable tableau – it reminded me of a louche distortion of those pictures of snooker-playing dogs you sometimes see in pretentious pubs. When they’re masked, the dancers instantly lose their identities – no matter that we’ve already seen their faces in earlier scenes and in the programme – they just become part of a pack, acting out their innate need to procreate.
Even without the masks, this lack of individual identity is emphasised by their unthinking obedience to the Mother Earth character – they follow her every silent instruction. When she dumps a cardboard box on each of their post-coital bodies, they instinctively know their task is to assume the animal mask inside. Similarly when she and the girls present them with a twisted washing line of light summer dresses, they know their task is instantly to discard all their current clothes and put on the dresses. I don’t know if this was meant to create either a sense of bizarre humour, or a heightened sexual tension, but it did neither; even once they were in their floral dresses and therefore, ostensibly, looking totally ludicrous, that still didn’t disrupt the sense of robotic blind obedience. It’s very hard to describe. On one hand, it’s a fascinating spectacle of the absurd; and on the other, it’s strangely normal. When nature calls, you just can’t do anything about it, you just have to carry out Mother Earth’s requirements. Actually, on the subject of humour, it’s an aspect of dance that was strangely absent throughout the whole evening.
But what of the dance, I hear you ask? Well that was a question I was asking myself too. To be honest, there’s not a huge amount of activity in The Rite of Spring that you could definitely classify under the heading of “dance”. There was a lot of enjoyable stamping about in the opening scenes, which I believed symbolised the start of Spring; but after that most dance action seemed to be confined to the girls’ very loose and relaxed dance style – fairly regular small movements of the arms and legs – and the guys’ jumping and whirling around in the dresses. Note: Mother Earth didn’t issue the guys with underpants as well as dresses, so when they whirl around you slightly get more exposure than you might have bargained for. To be fair it wasn’t the most compelling choreography I’ve ever seen. The strength of this production is much more in the spectacle and overall vision than in the dance itself.
All that and we’re only at the interval! The second half is the shorter Petrushka, which again bears similarities to its 1911 incarnation. I can see that, structurally, the character played by Ino Riga (I think) is Petrushka-esque. But the story-telling element of the original is really not followed through in this production. It’s clear that we are observing a kind of audition or judgement situation, with Bernadette Iglich sitting atop her lighting rig tower, her huge handbag concealing contestant numbers for the dancers to wear, and a picnic for when she needs sustenance. She is a kind of Black Widow Simon Cowell, rejecting all the contestants at first until they improve their performance. Her face has white make-up; and steadily, as the dance progresses, the dancers too gradually assume this white painted face appearance. This all feels heavily symbolic – I can only assume that as they pass their auditions, they adopt the white appearance – they’re in the White Club. A couple of the dancers hardly do anything at all – they just sit by the back corners of the stage and watch. That seemed weird.
The dance starts with all the dancers tossing clothes up into the air, which made me think two things: 1) are they going to get their kit off again? (answer no) and 2) this is reminiscent of something Didy Veldman might have done with Rambert 20 odd years ago, will it be as good? (answer again no). The clothes all get bundled up into a massive bed sheet and just left on the stage; but I saw it move occasionally so guessed that there would be a performer hidden in there – and indeed, it was Mikel Murfi, who emerged in his y-fronts a few minutes before the end, and whose job seemed to me to be just to hold still the rope ladder that our Petrushka climbs up at the end, a modern equivalent of the original’s ghost haunting the roof of the theatre. Whilst this piece started promisingly, it never really developed past the whitening of the faces and a few solo dances. There was definitely more “proper” dancing, although the choreographic style was still very similar to The Rite of Spring – in other words, very loose, very relaxed, giving an impression of top quality dance but without actually wowing us with technique. Mrs Chrisparkle and I agreed on the way home that it all got rather “samey” and ended up a bit, well, dull really. Sorry, as I’m sure a huge amount of effort went into it.
So yes, I think this probably comes under the category of brave failure – but I for one would never condemn a production for that. You sense the cast are really committed to their performances and you come away with some memorable visual images and a feeling of unease and being challenged. But as to the evening’s overall impact? Somehow I expected the boundaries of discomfort to be pushed even more. Nevertheless, Michael Keegan-Dolan’s cast present us with a fascinating vision for these two ballets, and if you like your dance a bit on the experimental side, it’s certainly worth giving this double bill a try.