Haitian vodou rituals and an exploration of sensory experiences and emplacement come together in Phoenix Dance Theatre’s innovative double bill at the Peacock Theatre.
Phoenix Dance Theatre’s latest offering is a double-bill showcasing Left Unseen, which is choreographed by Amaury Lebrun and a bold reimagining of The Rite of Spring, Igor Stravinsky’s epoch-defining musical odyssey, choreographed for the company by Jeanguy Saintus.
Set against a disordered industrial soundtrack spotlighting noise and silence, Left Unseen emerges full of contrasts: unity, disconnection, alarming intensity and fragile stillness, drama and vulnerability. These juxtapositions speak to the piece’s themes of inclusion and isolation, and are embodied elegantly as the dancers connect and break away, moving seamlessly from group formations into duo and solo pieces. There is an effortless and graceful fluidity to the evolution of movement on the stage; grand, sweeping gestures give way to nuanced flicks and kicks, buoyant upward motions descend to elegant shimmies across the floor. The laconic costumes, produced by Emma Louise James from the original designs by Melissa Parry, help communicate the work’s understated beauty and melancholy, which lingers on as the stage is cast back into darkness.
Originally staged in 1913 in Paris by Sergei Diaghilev’s itinerant Ballet Russes, The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps) was choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, whose choreographic language could not have been more far removed from the grace, elegance and poise of conventional ballet, to which French audiences would have been accustomed. Indeed, centring on pagan ritual, sacrifice and the trope of the Chosen One, The Rite of Spring had a tremendous, and widely mythologised, impact following its premier on May 29, 1913.
Choreographer Jeanguy Saints, however, subverts Stravinsky’s story of a young girl dancing herself to death in a pagan rite. Instead, informed by Saintus’ Haitian background, The Rite of Spring draws from and seeks to celebrate the richness of his homeland’s folklore, evoking traditional Haitian rituals, ceremonies and celebrations. Rather than female sacrifice, Saintus’ work focusses on the interaction between the physical and spiritual realms, setting out to spotlight the ‘give and take’ between these realms which underlies Haitian ritual ceremonies. Borrowing from the original’s elemental themes Saintus’ Rite follows three central figures of Haitain lore: ‘Ogou a spirit that rules over fire, iron, war and blacksmiths, the Marasa, the divine twins and Damballa the serpent spirit and creator of life’.
Referencing some of the gestural angles and formations of Nijinsky’s original, the dancers of the company masterfully embody the frantic, frenzied rhythms, the complex and often dissonant harmonies and the violent and extreme dynamic and textural juxtapositions.
Particularly intoxicating are the scenes in which all eight dancers of the company traverse the stage with sharp, processional strides and gyrate in striking, if at times faltering, synchronicity with the mechanical urgency of the music. Further scenes of violent and disjointed movement, in which solo dancers writhe and morph into seemingly gravity-defying contortions, as if possessed, are rousing and immersive. Particularly striking is Vanessa Vince-Pang’s performance, whose physicality and conviction is uniquely engaging. These scenes build to a sensually confronting finale that evokes the mystical and uncanny elements of Haitian vodou. The costumes, designed by Yann Seabra, evolve from plain white bodysuits into richly layered gowns with brightly coloured accents. While appearing to overly laden dancers, they contribute to the visual imagery suggestive of Haitian ritual.
The work falters only in its attempts to contradict the music; moments of stillness, of softness and even light-heartedness are jarring against the ecstasy of the music. It is perhaps futile to attempt to subvert the chaos and the darkness, to omit the drama of sacrifice, the frenzy from Stravinsky’s score. Throughout the work it is often hard to discern the celebratory thread of Saintus’ narrative and indeed to recognise the central figures of Haitian lore and their role therein. In this way, it falls short of other imaginings, namely Pina Bausch’s raw and primal retelling, perhaps the most famous Rite, one which seeks not to undermine the piece’s compelling story of a solemn pagan ritual and a young girl’s dance to the death.
While Saintus’ efforts to thus imbibe the music with new themes aren’t entirely convincing, his Rite is exciting and visually compelling. The dancers’ complete commitment and conviction to the narrative is tantalising and allows for Stravinsky’s iconoclastic soundtrack of the brutal and the sublime to capture our imaginations anew.
Phoenix Dance Theatre’s The Rite of Spring & Left Unseen is touring nationally throughout 2019. For performance dates, click here. You can follow Phoenix Dance Theatre via their Instagram account and on twitter.
- Feature image: Left to right: Aaron Chaplin, Carlos J. Martinez, Natalie Alleston, Vanessa Vince-Pang, Michael Marquez, Prentice Whitlow, Carmen Vazquez Marfil and Manon Adrianow in Phoenix Dance Theatre’s The Rite of Spring choreographed by Jeanguy Saintus. Photo by Tristram Kenton.
- Natalie Alleston in Phoenix Dance Theatre’s The Rite of Spring choreographed by Jeanguy Saintus. Photo by Tristram Kenton.
- Carlos J. Martinez and Vanessa Vince-Pang in Phoenix Dance Theatre’s The Rite of Spring choreographed by Jeanguy Saintus. Photo by Tristram Kenton.