Conceived and directed by Meryl Tankard
Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre
A centenary year homage to Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps that takes us back to the beginning of time in an astounding solo danced by Paul White, carrying the world’s genesis on his muscular shoulders.
Conceived, directed and costume designed by Australian dancer, choreographer and artistic director Meryl Tankard, former principal member (1980s) of Pina Bausch’s Wuppertal Tanztheater, choreographed with dancer Paul White, who incidentally joined Pina Bausch’s company last year, The Oracle bears no resemblance to the late Pina’s 1975 Rite of Spring version Frühlingsopfer.
Nor is it anything like the Nijinsky original that inspired it: The Oracle (more primitive than Greek oracle) responds to the drama of Stravinsky’s music, the adoration and the rite, with compacted energy and profound sensibility.
An entirely unique work, apparently also inspired by Scandinavian artist Odd Nerdrum’s opus (I see William Blake), aided and abetted by Régis Lansac’s video and set design, and Damien Cooper and Matt Cox’s crepuscular dramatic lighting, enigmatic visual clues guide the narrative and the lost soul in a lonely universe.
Ecclesiastical baroque music, incense, birdsong, thunder, and tolling bells: a prologue, a premonition. A young man in medieval skullcap splinters in kaleidoscopic Rorschach images on the dominating back screen. Nicholas Roerich’s (designer of Nijinsky’s 1913 production) mysticism is transposed into cryptograms.
Masonic emblems perhaps, papal purple, beautiful mutating cruciform shapes, the mystery and temptation of religion that mankind seems to need to dispel the darkness. (Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor maintains that man needs ritual, mystery and miracle more than bread.)
A man-god born trembling and blind on a forbidding planet, he slithers, licks the floor, a vast black cloth obscures his face. Twisting it into an elephant trunk, a proboscis, he strokes it, swings it like a censer before the mutating screen—primitive miasma and religious certainty.
The cloak now a long priest skirt, the man at one with the symbols, his hands reach up, he wheels, careens, turns ecstatic cartwheels, and the lights go out. Adoration complete.
A new chapter in his earthly progress: in a skirt of animal pelts he sees himself for the first time, like Narcissus, on the screen, Vitruvian man shadow boxing. The dawning of consciousness.
A conical heavenly beam bathes his timorous body, his territory confined by a circle of light on the floor, his altar space. He slides, crawls, totters, prostrates himself, arches his back, ribs taut, and collapses in religious convulsion.
Staring all-seeing eyes (Man Ray eyes painted on eyelids) look back at him from the screen. He retreats. And returns, cast naked upon the earth in a flurry of white dust, a William Blake Adam, each muscle etched on his compact Greek discus thrower body.
Stumbles, crumples, shakes in terror, a new-born taking tentative steps, flails, twists and turns, fighting off his demons, making fearful solitary sense of the world.
Paul White, an athletics champion as well as dancer, sensual, sturdy, dancing in duet with Régis Lansac’s imagery, adds meditative choreographic weight to Stravinsky’s still astonishing score.
‘Men forget all deities reside in the human breast” (William Blake). Emotionally and physically spent after an intense fifty minutes, Paul White looks consumed by the experience, as are we. Superlative.
The Oracle has toured Australia, Europe and the USA since its inception in 2009 to glowing reviews. This is its UK première, but why only one performance? The auditorium was packed.
Reviewer: Vera Liber