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Rite of Spring

Choreography: Seeta Patel; music: Igor Stravinsky
Sarah Shead for Spin Arts
Quays Theatre, The Lowry

In an era of ‘environmental crisis’, few would argue against the urgent artistic need to revisit pieces such as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, offering new readings and interpretations for 21st century audiences. Nevertheless, such is the majestic belligerence of the score, one might also caution that any modern choreographer needs to be very brave or very foolish to take it on. Stravinsky’s ballet music (first, infamously, tackled by Nijinsky) is a ravenous beast, a merciless pugilist that will pummel the unsuspecting into the ground, if one dares, even for a moment, to underestimate or undervalue it.

This evening’s choreographer, Seeta Patel, approaching from the highly technical south Asian discipline of Bharatanatyam, stands toe-to-toe with Stravinsky’s prowling, raging music; matches it, soothes it, commands it.

Stravinsky provided an episodic synopsis for structure. The unfolding journey of Patel’s choreography, whilst being no slave to this, quite clearly pays homage to it, most importantly honouring the composer’s direction that the essence of the work is "the mystery and great surge of the creative power of spring".

Waking to a realisation of a shift in the season, the dancers convey a sense of excitement, anticipation. Something is in the air, something is stirring in the earth. But this is both a promise and a warning—like a noble and powerful guest who will not cross the threshold without a respectful invitation, Nature needs to be paid homage to before she will allow Spring to arrive.

As a dance form, Bharatanatyam uses gesture, pose and facial expression to tell its stories. Patel has deliberately reined in the expressive eye movements, so central to the classical expression of the art. However, it remains the case that her dancers use their whole bodies, including hands gestures and facial expression, to communicate the narrative.

The six dancers show their trust in and commitment to their choreographer and director. They are unwaveringly and unflinchingly present, from first step to last. Fluttering hand gestures bring to mind the movements of developing seedlings captured in time-lapse photography (tremulous and impatient to live and bloom), whilst the dancers’ facial expressions—alert and responsive—speak constantly of those pagan times when humanity’s relationship with nature and earth’s seasons was intense, fragile, dangerous yet loving; so deeply felt, so little (in the scientific sense) understood, yet so intimately comprehended.

There are moments, watching these forty minutes of passion and grace, when the heart is pounding (and not just, I promise, due to the volume of the soundtrack, which is set to rival Glastonbury’s mainstage). The choreography channels the dancers into groupings and formations that have an organic feel to them. So much about this piece just feels right and, though there are sections that stand out above the others, there is no grandstanding, only a constant, virtually flawless engagement with the spirit of the music.

At one point, Patel even dares to step away from Stravinsky; a beautiful unaccompanied South Asian vocal by Roopa Mahadevan serving almost as an intermezzo. The ballet continues through this interlude; a tender, loving devotion being shown to the chosen one, reminding us that the one to be “sacrificed” must have seemed as much saviour as victim to these ancient societies.

The finale intentionally poses questions of who or what is being sacrificed. Is it death or rebirth that lies beyond the gate? Is that intense red the glow of sunrise or of sunset, or of blood? As the lights fade, we are reminded that, as always, what comes after the ritual is the waiting…

There is nothing fussy or superfluous about this production. Warren Letton’s lighting design enhances the plain backdrop and shows the dancers to the best effect, as does the costume design of Jason and Anshu Arora. Yet another of the joys of Patel’s choreography is her thoughtful and inventive exploitation of the width and depth of the stage—her shifting patterns and images captivate and hold the eye, without ever overwhelming or confusing. The movement is sometimes breathtaking, but never breathless, with the dancers regularly encouraged to strike and hold postures with stillness and confidence.

It is a splendid ensemble performance from Ash Mukherjee, Indu Panday, Kamala Devam, Moritz Zavan, Sarah Gasser and Sooraj Subramaniam. (The one punter on his feet at the end is the only man with any sense or judgement, if you ask me—and no, I'm not talking about myself.)

Supporting the main performance, there is a lovely, fun-filled piece (also choreographed by Patel) set to the opening of Beethoven’s 5th (“Occupying the Fifth”). The young dancers of the Natya Project give an energetic and accomplished opening to the evening. We can look forward to seeing more from them as the years pass.

Between the two dance pieces, Heather Bills treats us to Bach’s Cello Concerto No.1. The calm before the storm, indeed.

As the country continues in the grip of a rather ugly wrestling match with its own identity, how precious a creation is this: a sensuous marriage of classical South Asian and classical European art forms, united by the creative vision of a 21st century British Asian artist.

It is documented that Stravinsky was less than smitten with Nijinsky’s choreography. It is not hard to believe that he would have found much to applaud in what Seeta Patel has accomplished here.

Reviewer: Martin Thomasson