The Rite of Spring/Petrushka

Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, Brisbane Festival, September 26.

MICHAEL Keegan-Dolan’s Rite of Spring does honour to the most unsettling dance score in history. The Fabulous Beast founder and choreographer doesn’t shrink from nature at its most primaI, red in tooth and claw, but understands that while a community can be full of darkness and harm, it has self-healing powers too. This is a wondrous work.

As snow falls on barren ground, roughly attired men and women sit primly and formally in a row. They are country folk, people of no special standing or distinction, clutching cardboard boxes – marked “fragile” – in the manner of refugees waiting obediently for their orders. Soon, under the controlling eye of a witchy long-haired woman (Bernadette Iglich), they will shed inhibitions and clothes and let repressed urges well up.

They drop their pants and hump the cold ground as if trying to fertilise it; they grab a woman from the group to harry, threaten and then dismiss; the group will also turn on an old man (Bill Lengfelder) who so far has been a passive observer. Frightening dogs-head masks with lolling tongues make a nod to ancient cultures and simultaneously evoke the harsh rural life Keegan-Dolan so acutely observes, showing men at their most menacing and animalistic. And of course the group dances, in fierce stamps, jumps and circles as sisters Lidija and Sanja Bizjak play ravishingly, on one piano, Stravinsky’s version of his score for four hands.

It’s 100 years since Nijinsky’s ballet to Stravinsky’s music made its noisy entrance into the world and during that century there have been more than 100 other dance versions. Few have the staying power of the score, and Keegan-Dolan’s version deserves to be one of the keepers. He has a great gift for creating an enclosed group with all its quirks, secrets, anxieties and connections. It is not surprising to see his Rite end in an unusual way that exalts the society he depicts and its ability to renew. The Chosen Maiden (Anna Kaszuba) is full of passion, strength and resolve, wearing her white undies as proudly as a priestess’s robes.

Petrushka, which follows, is a more abstract piece that touches on – if one has knowledge of them – key characters and moments in the original libretto. It’s possible to discern the anguished puppet, the empty-headed ballerina and the boastful moor, although the roles shift around. Again Iglich is a controlling figure, this time sitting very high up on a pedestal offering judgment on various relationships. Lengfelder again observes, taking part only right at the end, but he and Iglich are potent reminders of Keegan-Dolan’s embracing, practical idea of community, in which there are people of all ages, sizes, shapes and colours.

Petrushka takes place in a white box, the dancers wear all white and there are many sections danced in unison. Texture comes from the beautiful diversity and charisma of the company and the often ecstatic nature of the movement. Colour comes from the score, again played in a four-hand version by the Bizjak sisters, assisted by some clamorous drumming from two of the dancers. There is a disconnect between the evocation of the fairground in Stravinsky’s music and designer Rae Smith’s empty space, although I found it a stimulating one, needing to keep two lines of thought going at the same time.

There’s only one line of thought about the ending, however. It is dramatic, theatrical, inspiring and absolutely in tune with Petrushka’s fate.

Rite of Spring/Petrushka, Melbourne Festival, October 11-14.

Versions of this review appeared in The Australian online and in The Australian on September 30.

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