Vaslav Nijinsky’s The Rite of Spring was infamously anti-ballet, suffused as it was with knock-kneed choreography and a wild, fitful movement vocabulary. Like its predecessor, this reworking by Michael Keegan-Dolan of Fabulous Beast rejects the delicate, aerial nature of classical ballet, though interestingly it also rejects the abstract modern technique that’s developed in the intervening century since Rite’s debut, invoking instead a uniquely vigorous rhetoric that manages to channel primitive and futuristic vibes alike.
Keegan-Dolan’s Irish heritage is front and centre in his piece, which commences with a folk song epigraph and proceeds to showcase a parade of regional tropes, from hare-coursing to tea-drinking. In one powerful scene, the 12 male dancers disrobe and gyrate against the stage, a deed inspired by an ancient Celtic belief that making love to mother earth ensures a successful harvest. As this imagery suggests, Keegan-Dolan preserves the original motifs of earth worship and primeval ritualism remain present in his version, though he recasts the once colourful stage designs as dank and snowy – a more Irish spring, if you will.
This gloomy mise en scène speaks to the broader mood, which is unnervingly, relentlessly dark. Spurred on by a silver-haired earth goddess (the formidable Bernadette Iglich), a menacing pack of men in hound masks chase three women clad as hares, eventually seizing one (Anna Kaszuba) and violently stripping her of her clothes. The rape allegory drives home notions of animalism and brutality, eschewing innocuous connotations of atavism in favour of a darker subtext that warns against equating humanness with humanity.
Just before the victim is sacrificed, however, she finds redemption, not only surviving the attack but conquering her assailants, who are forced to don dresses and dance at her command. Her endurance, with its inferences of emasculation and female empowerment, proves a canny subversion of the helpless woman archetype embedded in classic ballets like Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake as well as Rite itself, the original libretto of which sees ‘The Chosen One’ doomed to dance herself to death.
The accompanying Stravinsky score is notoriously difficult to count, but the dancers do a heroic job of keeping time, regularly employing percussive slaps, claps and stomps to do so. Keegan-Dolan’s choreography favours relaxed feet and strong lines, sharp shapes en face and in profile. The rigid transitions made at the behest of the discordant, frantic music are exciting, but it’s Kaszuba’s ‘frenzy’ that’s most entrancing, followed closely by the carnal convulsions that befall members of both sexes.
Unlike the standalone ballet it’s based on, Keegan-Dolan’s Petrushka picks up where Rite leaves off, the starkly white stage and costuming indicative of the recently ushered in spring. The tone is light, and it’s all frolics and smiles and whoops on the surface, though Stravinsky’s grating chords hint at a darkness lurking beneath this shiny facade.
The piece doesn’t preserve much of the original narrative, which sees a puppet come to life and fall in love, but the theme of transformation remains at its forefront. Iglich offers directions from atop a crow’s nest while the dancers rotate through different pairings, eventually emerging one by one with their faces painted white. What exactly prompts this change is unclear, but there’s a sweet sadness in their conversion, which Ino Riga and Rachel Poirier capture particularly well with their lyrical, lightfooted prancing.
Still, there’s something that feels unfinished about this half of the double bill, flavourful as it is. The dancers pull off the folksy choreography – dotted with calculatedly lax feet and loose arms – with aplomb, but the phrasing meanders, and it’s difficult to discern a solid reason for pitching the ballet as a sequel to Rite rather than separate narrative. A ladder appears from the rafters at the end, and the piece closes with Poirier climbing up and away, her fingers brushing Iglich’s as she ascends. Much like Petrushka as a whole, the outlook here is promising, but the direction remains hazy.