Jana Perkovic reviews The Rite of Spring / Petruska at the Melbourne Festival
This year marks a 100 years since The Rite of Spring opened, with the legendary riot that became something like the Ur-riot of modernism, and set the benchmark for the reaction that any self-respected work of artistic genius should provoke in the future.
The itinerant dance company Ballets Russes had only a brief period of activity (1909-1929), but in those 20 years it rewrote the history of dance. Forging collaborations between the titans of modern music, ballet, visual art and design, from Picasso to Coco Chanel, Ballets Russes practically invented modern dance. Their work is the stuff of legend, and none more so than The Rite of Spring. Everything about The Rite of Spring was scandalous: the story of tribesmen sacrificing a girl to the god of spring, Stravinsky's extravagant, rhythmically complex score, and Nijinsky's jumpy, bendy, lumberjack choreography, trying to match the music in complexity (Stravinsky, famously, thought very little of Nijinsky's efforts). Le Figaro called it “a laborious and puerile barbarity”.
In comparison, the slightly prior Petrushka (1911) is still scored in neo-classical style, and its story of star-crossed lovers Pierrot and Ballerina still recognisably echoes romantic ballet.
These two works are presented as a double bill by the Irish contemporary dance company The Fabulous Beast. Michael Keegan-Dolan worked in musicals, and as a choreographer of dance interludes in opera before coming to head his own company, and this pedigree of utilitarian dance shows. The reworkings of these early modernist classics are big on character, emotional moment, and story, and light on concept and historiographical reference. The Rite of Spring, in particular, is presented as if it had been composed yesterday, without a single quote or reference.
This is, of course, unforgivable. But what is truly extraordinary is how enjoyable the evening nonetheless is.
It would be worth paying the price of the ticket just to witness a dance – any dance – that tries to match Stravinsky's ravishing score. Here it has been reduced to a four-handed piano arrangement that clarifies its essence, and carries the dance rather than drowning it with the orchestral mass of sounds and bodies, as so often happens.
There is no intervention into the narrative, structure or overall shape of The Rite of Spring, which has simply been translocated to a contemporary society, and has dropped its stylised feel for the closest dance can get to social-realism. The Spring is Irish: snowy, bleak and dour; and the ritual of community and renewal has been replaced by poverty, suspicion, and violence. Gendered violence, in particular, comes to replace the savagery of nature, as the numerous male cast graphically assaults the females, creating truly horrific images. They herd and disperse, a pack of dogs chasing a hare, swarming in on the weak, the old, the isolated. While it improves on the careless misogyny hard-wired into the piece, such unflinching portrait of communal violence eventually starts to feel oppressive. The ultimate scene of possible redemption, where the original asked for female sacrifice, was necessary and appreciated, because all sense of magic and the sacred was otherwise drowned in this picture of human evil.
Petrushka carries on the motifs (snow) and the themes (regeneration and victory) of the first part, but in a startingly different key. The stage and all costumes – gender-bendingly assigned – are soft white, and the story abandoned for an abstract choreography. Scenes of lightness, purity and emotional detachment, as well as greater emphasis on balance and symmetry in the score, contrast the cacophonic, socially situated images of the first half. Petrushka feels like a welcome palate cleanser. Glimpses of the original narrative remain: traces of Ballerina and Moor in the duets, and Petrushka in the white paint that covers the faces, eventually, of all the dancers. But Petrushka remains a highly abstracted contemplation, and, where I saw questions about desire, gender, and identity, others most likely saw only line and volume.
None of this is a transcendent work of genius. But the source material is brilliant, the images strong, the choreography inventive yet somehow humble, and the dancers excellent. If it doesn't transcend the legendary original works, neither does it let it down. The Fabulous Beast have brought us, in other words, a great festival show.