Snow is falling on the stage as the Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre presents a quite ambitious programme reworking two masterpieces of the ballet tradition: The Rite of Spring and Perushka. Originally presented in 2009, Michael Keegan-Dolan’s version of The Rite is re-imagined for the String of Rites series: a Sadler’s Wells project celebrating the 100th anniversary of Stravinsky’s collaboration with Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes for the piece. Involving urban rites of passage and pale Pierrots on the run, Keegan-Dolan’s take presents an imaginative, frightening world, roughly poetic and meaningless.

The Rite of Spring © Johan Persson and ENO
The Rite of Spring
© Johan Persson and ENO

First choreographed in 1913 by Vaslav Nijinsky, it is probably because of the mystery behind the origins of The Rite of Spring – and the magnetic force of Stravinsky’s score – that it has become such a sacred monster for dance-makers, almost a rite of passage, to show they have grown enough to tackle the theme. All bigger names have proposed their own version, even conceptual choreographers such as Xavier le Roy (2007). Keegan-Dolan gives us a catwalk version of this brutal ritual. The scene opens on a frozen winter line of thickly clad beggars holding boxes and an old man on a table in the middle. An older lady in black enters, carelessly lighting a cigarette. In a sudden frenzy on stage the beggars shake, boxes in their hands, to the complex rhythm of Stravinsky’s music. A raw and unexpected group attack leaves the first victim in underwear, and knives suddenly appear, only to be stuck into the floor. Then, peeling off clothing layer by layer, winter, spring and summer each has its sacrificial virgin (or more than one) – even though we have clearly seen them having sex.

Knives in hands, earth on faces (a possible reference to Pina Bausch’s version?) or masked as rabbit-mouse or dog, the following assaults grow less and less convincing, with many convulsions for the cold, for poisoned tea, for sex, or only for the sake of rhythm. The four-hands piano execution of the piece, usually for orchestra, produces an unexpected soft and intimate atmosphere. The old lady, snow-white witch with a black hat, serves dubious tea to young ladies (how British is that?) that fall in spasms, and the men, a herd of dogs, watch with their trousers half-way down. The catwalk end with them getting nude (as one would say in the arts) to wear floral dresses and preparing for yet another attack as the curtain closes on them.

For Petrushka, we are greeted by two Beckett-like characters: a man-dog seated under a lamp and the old lady at its top. Choreographed in 1911 by Mikhail Fokine, the ballet tells the story of the unhappy love of Petrushka the puppet. Keegan-Dolan’s reworking presents a white box with transitory walls of fleeting material and dancers clad in white. As an opening, the clothing of the previous act is thrown in the air and collected on a big white sheet that is pulled away. The dancers then meet and pair up. The old lady is a picky master, as she is never happy with the couples. Once they have found the right one, she becomes silent, mindlessly lights a cigarette, and observes. The piece is full of beautiful synchronic moves and nice counterpoint moments, with interesting movement material taken from different genres: from release to folk dance. But the purposelessness of the game makes the constant clicking of the lighter, as the two older figures smoke constantly observing the young in their dances, an easy distraction from what happens on stage.

Then, suddenly, the drums wake us up and the spotlights temporarily blind us. We realise that in the meantime one of the dancers has painted her face white like the clown Pierrot. One by one all the dancers become melancholically white while continuing their beautifully purposeless counterpoint work. At times a quick partnering sequence or shadow games offer a distraction, but mostly the questions remain: is the old lady the determining force, and who is Petrushka? Then together with the snow a ladder falls in the middle of the scene. The old man holds it still and a dancer climbs up saying farewell to the old lady on the pole. As she disappears the white backdrop falls. She is safe; we are safe.

One positive aspect of Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre is surely to bring mature people onto the stage. Older bodies can tell many stories by simply being. Having said this, they have not been fully used. And so many of the scenes could have been developed further. The dancers were brilliant but the choreography was repetitive and the few inspirational moments lost their freshness in it. It was a different take on the classics, with the snow an interesting connecting leitmotif, that was still quite raw and has left many questions open.