Of the several accounts of The Rite of Spring that I have sat through, three have, for me, realised Stravinsky’s vision of pagan ritual: Kenneth MacMillan, Pina Bausch, Leonid Massine. They were utterly different but unfailing in their response to the music. Let me now add a fourth, as powerful as these, by Michael Keegan-Dolan for his Fabulous Beast troupe.
It forms part of a double bill at the Coliseum with English National Opera’s new staging of Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. Be it said at once that Edward Gardner’s account of the score with the ENO orchestra could drive a weaker production than Keegan-Dolan’s to glory with its rhythmic discipline. Keegan-Dolan shows us an Irish rural community of today: a crowd of men; a Wise Woman (the splendid Olwen Fouéré); her boy acolyte, dressed as for his first communion; and three young women. Snow intermittently falls on an open space, with a statue of the Blessed Virgin a haunting presence.
The Wise Woman begins the ceremony, puffing on a cigarette. The men bring cardboard boxes. They dance, their movement rough, rudimentary, urgent. A young man is, briefly, a potential victim for sacrifice. An old man is carried above the crowd on a table. The girls are given a potion (in teacups) and fall into a trance. They put on hare masks, and are held (thrilling image) totemic on men’s shoulders. The men’s dancing becomes orgiastic and they copulate with the earth. From boxes they take dog-head masks and become a menacing pack of hounds. As the rite intensifies, one of the girls becomes the chosen figure. The men strip naked, put on frocks and dance, inspired by the girl’s revealed identity. The rite avoids sacrifice, but retains its intensity.
I detail these actions because they suggest the force of Keegan-Dolan’s vision. Movement is demotic in its stampings and circlings, yet acquires sacramental dignity. The power of Keegan-Dolan’s response lies in this simplicity: in the complexities of Stravinsky’s score he has discerned an elemental directness. His artists give thrillingly frank and unassuming performances, their strength that of the music. Here is a Rite whose modernity is utterly remote from the prehistory that inspired Stravinsky, yet it knows that there are race memories within us, potent and cathartic.
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