Sacre – The Rite of Spring, Carriageworks, Sydney

Though it pales next to this season’s bicentennial celebrations of Wagner and Verdi, the 100th anniversary of Le sacre du printemps has nonetheless carved its place at the table. Artists and academics of various nationalities – and various disciplines – have been taking a step back to ruminate on how this once-scandalous work has come to shape our very definition of modernity.

At this year’s Sydney Festival, where an array of Australian artists are similarly engaged in reflection over repertory ranging from Beethoven to Ligeti, often in alternative or scaled-down instrumentation, Raimund Hoghe’s Sacre – The Rite of Spring from 2004 seems both a bit dated and particularly timely. As the opening production at Carriageworks, a former railway station converted into a multi-venue arts space, Hoghe’s two-dancer, two-piano production itself puts an old structure to new use, rather setting the festival’s tone.

Hoghe, a former dramaturg for Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal, approaches Stravinsky’s score not as a series of brash eruptions but as a decidedly minimalist piece of ritual. Not to say he avoids extremes. Starting with visual appearances, Hoghe is “middle-aged, hunchbacked and attired in formal clothes”, as the programme note puts it, while fellow dancer Lorenzo de Brabandere is young, tall and dressed in sports gear. The two spend much of their time in mirror image, with De Brabandere occasionally dashing to various corners of the stage. But the broad contrasts tend to cancel each other out, all traces of Stravinsky’s original dramatic scenario jettisoned in favour of Hoghe’s purely abstract reaction to the music.

Pianists Alain Franco and Guy Vandromme take a similarly ritualistic approach to the score. With the two-piano version necessarily limiting the dynamic range, and the acoustical limitations of the venue narrowing the timbral possibilities inherent even for two pianos, the music becomes primarily a study of rhythm. Its repetition, fractured symmetry and colliding metres point less to the Russian tradition Stravinsky inherited than to the early works of Philip Glass and Steve Reich that he inspired.

It’s hard, though, to see Hoghe’s choreography in a similarly forgiving light, since there is so little room to engage with it. As one observer noted on opening night, Sacre is so personal that at times you can hardly bear to watch.

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