In 2013, as part of the centenary celebrations of Igor Stravinsky and Vaslav Nijinsky’s Rite of the Spring, Sasha Waltz created her own choreography of the piece. The piece is presented at London’s Sadler’s Wells this week, along with two other works with resonances of well-known ballets in dance history: Scène d’Amour, set to Hector Berlioz’s dramatic symphony Roméo and Juliette, and L’Après-midi d’un Faune, set to Claude Debussy symphonic poem. The triple bill left a mild impression in the audience, for although the choreography contained moments of truly creative talent none of the pieces possessed a clearly sustained focus.  

Faune, opening the programme that evening, contains several references to Nijinsky’s original choreography, such as the famous angular, two-dimensional yearning of the faun, the groupings of dancers (nymphs in the original) and the sensuality evoked by the movements. The longing of the body for an erotic encounter, so central to Nijinsky’s version, is also a dominant idea in Waltz’s rendering. Her slow-paced movements, which tend to finish in clusters of body images, allow for the quiet and evocative music to create a dream-like atmosphere that the set design and changing bright colours also stress.

Music is a driving force in Scène d’Amour too. Berlioz’s intensively melodic symphony portrays the passionate love of Romeo and Juliet powerfully and Waltz’s choreography pays tribute to that intensity. The dance has phrases and gestures that are very effective in expressing the turbulence of the feelings of the two young lovers but also contains moments when the exact nature of their doubts is unclear. I could not understand whether the dubitative expressions that fill the central part of the piece were meant to suggest that the two adolescents are aware of their tragic fate, unsure about their mutual feelings or merely unwilling to part for a few hours. 

Sacre's meaning is similarly unclear. Yes, it seems to be the collective rite of a primitive tribe yet the motives, purpose and structure of the ceremony are too vaguely delineated. Potent images of sacrifice arise from time to time but it is hard to know how they fit together in the overall conceptualisation of the piece. Waltz’s choreography is also packed with too many references to Pina Bausch’s authoritative and forceful version, such as the earth-grounded, compulsive rhythm of the movements, the use of sand on the floor (or is it lava?), and similar costumes (including a bright-coloured dress for the chosen one). This excessive influence and the overwhelming energy of Stravinsky’s music completely overshadow the merits in Waltz’s choreography. In the evening I attended, the dancers, in this piece as well as in the other two, offered powerful performances. Their commitment to Waltz’s choreography made the plastic and dynamic physicality of the dance the best asset of the three productions.