Sadler's Wells, London

Dance review: Petrushka/The Rite of Spring - Stravinsky puts a Spring in your step

4.00

A celebratory double bill is inspired by heartlifting music, while a dire jailhouse 'dansical' deserves to be locked up

Why pay money to turn out on a wet night when you could stay in with a DVD? Because nothing compares to the liveness of live theatre, to that sense of being in the moment. Two premieres last week hit major snags. One flailed, the other triumphed, its positives only enhanced by a sharp reminder that, on the night, anything can happen, magic included.

Michael Keegan-Dolan's staging of The Rite of Spring isn't strictly new. It first burst on the London stage four years ago, offering a bracingly fresh line on Stravinsky's score by filling the stage with images of provincial Ireland: hare-coursing, tea-drinking, and flat-capped blokes in anoraks. Tame? Hardly, when all 18 men dropped their trousers and started to hump the floor.

That Rite has now been reworked and paired with Stravinsky's Petrushka, commissioned as part of A String of Rites, a series marking the centenary of a work that shattered the parameters of Western music. This time, though, Rite uses the four-hands piano version, a scaled-down affair both in volume and seismic clout. The performance of sisters Lidija and Sanja Bizjak, quaintly turned out in matching white socks, was nuanced to the point of lyrical – an interesting reading, but likely to disappoint some.

You begin to see the line of Dolan's thinking as his Rite proceeds. Paring his forces and equalising the gender balance, he has toned down the testosterone threat of his earlier version. Olwen Fouéré still presides as a shamanic queen of winter. Chain-smoking with relish, she pours "tea" for a bevy of colleens who fall into convulsions on drinking it. There is still insidious terror in the lifelike animal heads (design, Rae Smith) that each dancer produces from a cardboard box and tries for size. The moment when a dozen lurchers, tongues lolling, turn their gaze on the single hare is transfixing. But the redemptive twist of this Rite – a benign feminising of the world – fully makes sense only in relation to the Petrushka that follows. Dolan's gambit is to make two ballets seem like complementary halves of a single idea.

And it works. This Petrushka replaces the original scenario of the puppet booth at Butter Week Fair with a barefoot ballet blanc in which glimmers of the old story remain. Now the lyricism of Stravinsky's piano version comes into its own. This is music to make your heart sing. And sing was – bizarrely – what the director urged the audience to do when disaster struck on Thursday night in the show's final moments, and a 40ft rope ladder – Petrushka's passage to a suggested afterlife – failed to drop. Quick thinking on Dolan's part (he leapt on stage and sorted it out) saved the day. The faulty section was reprised – it worked second time – and the result was glorious.

There was no such reprieve, though, for Midnight Express (Coliseum, London *), the dansical based on Billy Hayes's memoir of being incarcerated, for dope smuggling, in a sadistic Turkish jail. A grisly subject for a ballet, you might think, and you would be right. Not even the glamour of its intended star, Sergei Polunin, who vanished six days before opening night, could have saved this dire project by Peter Schaufuss, whose CV includes ballets about Elvis and Princess Diana. Nor could it be saved by Mozart, whose sublime Requiem Mass is plundered shamelessly.

Polunin's stand-in, 20-year-old Johan Christensen, cuts a fine figure in an opening solo, but from then on is hamstrung by a role that allows nothing beyond empty posturing. The jailer's antics with a metal kosh are the evening's nadir. The booing at the interval curtain was richly deserved.

Critic's Choice

At the Place Prize Finals (Wed to 27 Apr), each night’s audience votes for its favourite finalist. Competing for the nightly £1,000 prize are the autobiographical Duet; Athletes, a reflection on competition in the modern world; Dead Gig, a tribute to hippie dinosaurs The Grateful Dead; and The Wishing Well, about the dynamics of desire. Judges also award £25,000 to an overall winner. At the Robin Howard Theatre, The Place, London.

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