Damaged, dominating relationships were at the heart of Scottish Ballet’s double-bill of Stravinsky ballets at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre on Wednesday. Even if they are choreographed to scores by the same composer, The Fairy’s Kiss and The Rite of Spring might seem worlds apart. But programming the two together, it becomes apparent they basically have the same plot: a would-be healthy relationship poisoned by a disruptive interloper, the titular fairy in The Fairy’s Kiss and the composite character of Faith/Death in The Rite of Spring.

Scottish Ballet company in Sir MacMillan's <i>The Fairy's Kiss</i> © Andy Ross
Scottish Ballet company in Sir MacMillan's The Fairy's Kiss
© Andy Ross

Both ballets are set to Stravinsky’s otherworldly harmonies. A lyrical woodwind call opens The Fairy’s Kiss (ch: Sir Kenneth MacMillan), melting like chocolate into the sweet response from the strings, perfectly encapsulating the unfolding fantasy. Similarly, The Rite of Spring (ch: Christopher Hampson) begins on the solo bassoon, this time invoking a primitive peace that nevertheless anticipates the invigorating percussion of the disturbing sacrifice that follows. A live orchestra is a welcome change in a Scottish Ballet performance, since in recent years many of their productions have used recorded music. Although this has not detracted from the spectacular dancing we have come to expect from the company, the live orchestra suits these two ballets particularly. Kenneth MacMillan’s original 1960 choreography of The Fairy’s Kiss has been revived and the older style of musical accompaniment complements this historical production. Meanwhile, the intense energy of live music adds volumes (literally and figuratively) to The Rite of Spring’s visceral impact.

Alongside the emotive music, both ballets have fantastic costume design and atmospheric sets. We are immediately transported to the snowy Russian mountains in The Fairy’s Kiss as dancer Sophie Martin swirls and crumples, buffeted by winds brought by eerie, black-eyed wind spirits with flowing wispy hair. When later the evil fairy uses an illusion to blend into the mountainside, the effect is splendidly created by hiding under a blanket decorated to resemble the snowy ground. In other scenes, stylistically beautiful fragments of wooden boards and slanted doorways create the impression of a rustic mountain village, despite actually containing minimal details. This fits thematically with the striking black and white backdrop of The Rite of Spring, against which two brothers turn against each other; the older, trading his flowing tribal skirt for army fatigues, savagely strips the younger’s skirt off, exposing him in only underwear, before subjecting him to the most unbearable of tortures.

Sophie Martin and Constant Vigier in Christopher Hampson's <i>The Rite of Spring</i> © Andy Ross
Sophie Martin and Constant Vigier in Christopher Hampson's The Rite of Spring
© Andy Ross

It is excruciating to watch the older brother (Christopher Harrison) knee the younger in the stomach, elbow him in the back and kick his stool out from under him so he falls to the floor, fighting and goading him one moment, then sauntering away the next to read a book while his victim convulses and spasms on the ground. Constant Vigier is remarkably strong in the role of the younger brother. We see his painful breakdown from a happy, eager teenager to a betrayed, broken husk. His inability to drink from an offered mug until his brother’s back is turned is a poignant microcosm of the overall effect of his ordeal on his ability to trust. The entire sequence is a horrifying masterpiece.

The Fairy’s Kiss also explores violence, but in a more subtle context. The fairy (Constance Devernay) is never physically abusive, but claiming a young man’s life with her enchanted kiss deprives him of his agency so, even when he appears to willingly leave his fiancée for her, he is merely forced to comply with her dominating spell. Their bodies are unusually distant for a romantic couple, even in hold, and are often angled to pull against each other. This is particularly apparent during a sequence of arabesques where the fairy practically drags the youth across the stage behind her. It is also telling that neither the youth nor the fairy ever actually smile when dancing together. The best the fairy can muster is a half-smirk, and even when the youth is awed by the magical surroundings, he is open-mouthed and surprised rather than joyful. Compare this to the chemistry between the youth and his fiancée – they are very close, actually happy, and can barely take their eyes off each other – and it is suddenly clear how terrible the fairy and youth pairing is.

Our intrinsic understanding of sight and vision were also exploited in The Rite of Spring to emphasise relationships between characters. Early on, a worship ritual involves the brothers consensually covering their own and each other’s eyes as a sign of trust and faith. Later, the older brother dominates the younger by forcefully blinding him, first with hands and then, disturbingly, putting a hood over the younger brother’s head.

With this Stravinsky double-bill, Scottish Ballet’s director Christopher Hampson brings together a pair of distinct but connected works. From the ethereal woodwind opening of The Fairy’s Kiss to the frantic, exhausted collapse in The Rite of Spring, the programme is an encapsulating success that makes for a brilliant evening.

*****