Choreographers are lured to The Rite of Spring like moths to the proverbial flame. Few can resist the glamour and notoriety of the Stravinsky-Nijinsky ballet which caused a riot at its premier in 1913, yet few are up to its musical and narrative demands.
Michael Keegan-Dolan is an able dance maker and innovative director who has had considerable success re-imagining ballets like Giselle and Romeo and Juliet which have been seen at the Barbican. However, his Rite of Spring looks hastily assembled and thinly thought through. The production for English National Opera, paired intriguingly with Bartok’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, time-travels the pagan Russian story of a maiden who dances herself to death to safeguard her tribe to a modern-day but backward-seeming rural Ireland, where hare coursing, cattle rustling and bigotry are the norm.
The male-dominated cast look menacing, hunched up in coats and muffles, as if guarding guilty secrets. Onto the scene peddle three women on small bikes and pretty summer dresses. As the music gathers pace the women don hare masks and the men those of hounds, and you expect a hunt that matches the terrifying music. However, unexpectedly Keegan-Dolan flips the role of the woman, or The Chosen One in the original, from victim to victor, overcoming the men as if femininity has strength to rule the world.
This is a curious twist, along with the Witch and the Sage and the male simpleton, all of which you may or may not agree. I’m not sure you can reverse the course of Stravinsky’s music. It’s like a Romeo and Juliet with the lovers living happy ever after. However, it’s not really the point, as Keegan-Dolan’s means don’t justify his ends whatever they are.
The Rite of Spring was commissioned by Serge Diaghilev for his Ballets Russes as a dance work. It has no speech or song, meaning the steps have to tell the story. Keegan-Dolan fails to create a physical language, although he fails with considerable style (Rae Smith’s designs are excellent). His Rite is more like a silent drama set to music, but that is a million miles from true choreography.