An announcement warns that Fabulous Beast's new production features sexual imagery, nudity and (horrors!) smoking. Actually the most shocking thing about the first half of tonight's double bill is that the shedding of inhibitions leads not to sexuality but to tribal, almost primal, violence. Igor Stravinsky's restless surging score with constant crashing chords gives a sense of a chase – a conflict without resolution. Director and choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan's production is, accordingly, far from a pastoral setting instead depicting nature red in tooth and claw. The seasons do not gently shift but demand a sacrifice to achieve change.
There is a strong feeling of ritual in The Rite of Spring. Under the severe guidance of a pagan druid a group of refugees lose all inhibitions, leave behind civilisation and assume animalistic attitudes to undertake a series of rites that bring about the change of seasons and fertilise the earth. The actions border on barbaric – the seeding of the soil is brutally literal.
Dance is often perceived as seductive but here the objective is conquest rather than courtship. There is little romanticism; the act of love is reduced to a brutal ritual in which the timid and terrified mate is hunted and pretty much violated. The choreography is tribal and intimidating – the group circle the lone individual in a hostile stance with legs spread and feet thundering down. It is intensely disturbing suggesting preparation for war rather than love. Even the few dances that break away from the tribal norm have a defensive aspect as if bracing against attack.
Rather than make the dance an emotionally draining experience Keegan-Dolan acheives catharsis with the subdued, if not shamed, revellers adopting the identity of the people they have hunted. The Rite of Spring is not without humour. Keegan-Dolan brings out an undercurrent of eroticism in the most British of all habits- afternoon tea.
Petrushka, the second half of the bill, offers a sharp contrast. Stravinsky's score is lighter and more inquisitive. The chorography has a lively innocence bringing to mind children at play. The company, in Doey Luthi's striking summer white costumes, are now able to move more freely with arms spinning. They dance in unison rather than try to intimidate or coerce their partners. But the playfulness cannot last as the druid is now auditioning for a disciple and compels the company to compete for the position.
The choreography is less ritualised and more traditional in the second half. The sheer exuberance of the company becomes apparent and provides a welcome release after the tension of the opening. Fabulous Beast's new production combines a disturbing and brutal look at nature with a lighter more hopeful sequence. A reminder that it is always darker before the dawn.
The Rite of Spring and Petrushka is at the Lowry until 23 April.
- Dave Cunningham