Dance Review: The Rite of Spring/Petrushka (Sadler’s Wells, London)

Fabulous Beast's"The Rite of Spring" from the 2009 production. Photograph: Courtesy of the company.

Fabulous Beast’s “The Rite of Spring” (taken from the 2009 production). Photograph: Courtesy of the company.

Rating: **

Fabulous Beast re-imagine their 2009 Olivier-nominated interpretation of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring for the ballet’s centenary, and also add a new interpretation of the composer’s Petrushka to create two narratively connected pieces in this double bill. But despite the acclaim of 4 years ago fuelling their hype, this premier at Sadler’s Wells is lacking.

With The Rite of Spring the problem was with the musical aspect. Gone are the English National Opera’s tremendous orchestra from the acclaimed 2009 version. Here we welcome just two very talented pianists. But it almost made sense. Stravinsky’s behemoth scoring is irrepressible and the removal of the mountain of sound that a full orchestra creates really gives the dance undivided attention from the audience. It starts off interesting being able to hear every stamp, turn, and breath of the dancers as its resonates through the auditorium. But you quickly start to notice the absence of the thumping string rhythms, the booming trumpets, and the catastrophic percussion that hallmark the work. The tinkle-tinkle of a piano just doesn’t cut it. You’re suddenly left realising and appreciating the genius behind Stravinsky’s scoring and just how integral it is to the ballet – further reflected in the perfectionism of the several revisions he made to the piece during his lifetime.

The modern narrative doesn’t really diverge far from the essence of the original ballet – a sullen matriarch watches over a ritual of rebirth, complete with sex and violence. But without the energy and timbre of an orchestra the dance is bewildering at best. Michael Keegan-Dolan’s choreography is certainly sinister, but it lacks the savagery the piece lusts for. For a production that sends out warnings to school groups about the content it’s decidedly un-shocking, sometimes tumbling into the ridiculous. Apart from a bit of nudey-nudey dancers, dry-humping the stage after dropping your trousers down to your pants is hardly pornographic, and the sexual violence is abstract enough to lose any impact. Furthermore the dog masks look more like we’ve been plunged into a Furries convention rather than an unnerving metamorphosis of wild animal instinct. For a piece that infamously started a riot during its first performance, this version scarcely raises an itch.

Petrushka was an improvement by comparison. Stravinksy’s lighter, more lyrical, and melodic score of this earlier ballet suits a version for four hands much better opposed to the raw rabble of The Rite of Spring. Keegan-Dolan’s brighter approach also boasts tighter and more energetic ensemble pieces. Again, whilst diverging from the original narrative of the ballet, the core elements are still there – romance, rivalry, and ascension. However, these themes are loosely dragged out over the entire 30 minutes of the ballet score and despite a handful of visually arresting moments and managing to capture a fun sense of whimsy, it ultimately doesn’t feel satisfying. Also, its tagging-on as some sort of pseudo-sequel to the previous piece is irritatingly contrived. The matriarch reappears only to shout “non” several times and toss about a few pockets of fake snow. Her presence goes from intimidating to irrelevant.

I’m admittedly more knowledgeable about music than I am dance, so I’m unfortunately unable to offer much comment on the actual choreography itself. However, whilst it certainly looks slick, it just seems too safe with little breath-taking moves or surprising stunts, overall lacking a sense of daring. But it seemed pretty much there and the dance aficionados in the audience certainly seemed to appreciate it.

If you’re into modern dance then I’m sure the choreography itself is quite something whether you burgeon a deep appreciation for the music, like myself, or not. But if you’re not, without a proper musical performance the entire affair is empty. Fabulous Beast seems to ignore the fact that what makes Stravinksy’s ballets is Stravinsky’s music and orchestration, not just the dance, thus rendering The Rite of Spring/Petrushka into something pretentious, dull, and disappointing.

The Rite of Spring/Petrushka plays at Sadler’s Wells, London, EC1R 4TN, until 13th April. Tickets are £12-£38. To book visit www.sadlerswells.com.

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