No one ever put it more succinctly than Leonard Bernstein who, faced with conducting Stravinsky's juggernaut masterpiece, The Rite of Spring, said: "It's got the best dissonances anyone ever thought up." A half-century later, its brutalism undimmed, the work's polyrhythms remain a challenge to conductors and orchestras. To choreographers, though, the test is imaginative. Of the many danced Rites I have seen, few remain vivid in memory: Kenneth MacMillan's teeming vision of tribal sacrifice in a scorched desert of red earth, Pina Bausch's post-apocalyptic gender face-off, and Michael Clark's, but possibly only because of the Hitler moustaches.
Now, to join that list, comes Michael Keegan-Dolan's Rite for his Irish-based company Fabulous Beast, brought in by English National Opera to complete a double bill that opens with Duke Bluebeard's Castle (reviewed by Anna Picard on page 63). The rite, in this case, is that of a working-class Catholic community we're told isn't necessarily in rural Ireland, but is nonetheless a patriarchal backwater where people drink tea, smoke a lot, and harbour a liking for hare-coursing. The curtain rises on seated rows of coated, hatted men, each nursing a large cardboard box, as if queuing at the vet's, or about to enter his ferret in a race. Enter a strange, older woman in black, the Cailleach, who plants herself centre-stage as if waiting for a bus, and lights up a spliff. Under her spell, helped perhaps by her stray smoke, three local girls who arrive on bicycles fall into a willing swoon, and the men revert to atavistic behaviour.
Herding into a pack, they threaten the weakest and the oldest with knives, then display their male power in a hunched, twitchy group dance that has a hint of a whiskey lurch in it (a brilliantly original response to Stravinsky's whumping "Augurs of Spring" section, which tempts lesser choreographers to excess). To a later musical climax, the men lie down on their bellies and hump the soil, their 18 active, naked bottoms a truly terrifying sight. Inside the boxes, it transpires, are pitbull-terrier masks, which the wise woman hands out to the men, as if to say: since you're so determined to behave like dogs, why not look the part?
Of all the choreographed Rites I've seen that haven't worked, the chief fault was that the visuals fought the music. Keegan-Dolan is a close listener, so his ideas spring directly from Stravinsky's (praise is due, at this point, to the ENO orchestra's taut playing under Edward Gardner). A lovely example comes when, to a stretch I've always heard as snake-charmer music, Daphne Strothmann's Chosen Maiden presents the men with a large coil of coloured rope, which, on unwinding, turns out to be a string of women's dresses, one for each man to put on. Here lies the twist in Keegan-Dolan's telling: the eventual ending of winter, and the warming of the earth, is a process of feminisation. In the 1913 original of this work, the same was achieved through a death. In this startling, cathartic rewrite for the 21st century, it is life that wins out.
There were echoes of MacMillan's 1970s Rite in the centrepiece of Birmingham Royal Ballet's latest triple bill. Like his forbear, choreographer David Bintley is happiest telling a story, so E=mc2, his attempt to illustrate Einstein's theory of relativity, takes him well out of his comfort zone. How on earth do you turn complex physical theory into pointe-shoe dance? Formula is the answer: a fast Energy movement, a slow, serene one for Mass, then a mournful reminder of Hiroshima, ending in a finale that's all about speed. E=mc2? Easy-peasy.
Add in an extravagant lighting scheme by Peter Mumford (laser squares, coloured fog, a wall of multiple suns: the works) a riveting orchestral score by the young Australian Matthew Hindson (of whom we shall surely hear more), punctuated by the spine-rattling rumble of a very large bomb going off, and the combined effect pins you to your seat. I couldn't say the same for the other new work on the bill, by Gary Stewart, which is brutal to the limits of tolerance, but in E=mc2 Bintley has created a worthy vehicle for BRB's currently fine crop of dancers, as well as an experiment I'd happily undergo again.
'Rite': in a double bill with 'Bluebeard' to 28 Nov (0871 9110 0200).Reuse content