By Ken Powell
The contemporary ballet group, Phoenix Dance Theatre, performed ‘Left Unseen’ and Igor Stravinsky’s classic ‘The Rite of Spring’ at Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake on Wednesday 8 May, and gave the audience a thing of beauty which was hard to define.
Stravinsky’s musical work famously supposedly caused a riot in Paris when first performed in 1913. The ballet, choreographed by ’cause celebre’ Nijinsky, broke new ground in much the same way as the music and the work as a whole can still divide opinions even today.
Warming up with ‘Left Unseen’ these eight dancers explored the themes of isolation and inclusion and how we navigate our way through the world, through the choreography of Amaury Lebrun. Accompanied by the minimalist and non-tonal music of Alva Noto, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Hildur Gudnadottir, the movements on stage were serene, hypnotic and strangely unknowable. Lebrun’s vision was rather like watching a lava lamp in human form.
I have taught Stravinsky’s music, The Rite of Spring and The Firebird in particular, for many years to A level students, and know the story well – a maiden from an ancient tribe is chosen to sacrifice herself for the advent of Spring by dancing herself to death. I came expecting a repeat of this story, with all its primitive barbarity, but Phoenix Dance Theatre had other plans.
The dance group advocates diversity and is made up of largely non-white dancers. In keeping with this ethic, choreographer, Jeanguy Saintus, chose to subvert the traditional tale and replace it with more uplifiting Haitian folktales. Sacrifice becomes offering, roles are shared equally among all and, as the performance progresses, the costumes are increasingly non-gender oriented. The result was intensely beautiful and exotic. Apart from a few seconds of incongruity with a man writhing slowly on the floor while the full orchestra is actually going hell for leather, the rest of the dance perfectly matched the sound and spirit of Stravinsky’s score.
My biggest criticism has to be with the programme and publicity by the dance theatre. The programme design was badly flawed, so explanation of the reimagined story was hard to find (hidden to look like a short piece about rehearsals) – most of us were left in the dark about what the heck was going on, on stage. Worse, there was no mention of the composer at all with the only credit being given to the conductor, Pierre Boulez. Only Nijinsky is credited on the website. To remove credit of one of the most important composers of the 20th century for such an iconic work is, frankly, unforgivable – and just a little bit silly.
Nevertheless, there is little about this group not to like. They are young, fresh, impressively fit and graceful. After the performance I overheard one member of the audience saying that he goes to see the group wherever they perform – all over the country. That Phoenix Dance Theatre stir such loyalty and devotion from fans is not a surprise. I’m not the greatest enthusiast for ballet, but I would happily see these eight performers again.