Though Wayne McGregor’s choreography sometimes seems to ‘go against’ the music, it provokes fascinating revelations and is, however, always extremely musical. In his 2014 work Kairos, to Max Richter’s adaptation of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, the dancers use angular, contemporary movements (compared to Roland Petit’s softer choreography to Vivaldi’s score, for example) which combine superbly with the often spikey and brisk baroque music. It is surprising therefore that in AfteRite – McGregor’s interpretation of The Rite of Spring – his handling is intimate, in fact, there are only thirteen dancers and two children on stage. He is respectfully contained working with Stravinsky’s aggressive passages, maybe thinking that the music is already saying so much that it would be an overload to try and compete with rival physical movements. There is more sense of a primal, tribal rite in his Dante Project for The Royal Ballet. The focus is on ‘the Mother’ and her two girls. Here there is a ‘chosen one’ and a sacrifice, as in Vaslav Nijinsky’s original version, but McGregor largely ignores the narrative indicated in Stravinsky’s score.
McGregor was inspired for the work by Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s influential book about the impact on nature of man-made pesticides. AfteRite is set in an arid landscape and videos of Chile’s Atacama Desert – the driest place on earth – emerge from the black folds of the backcloth. In this hostile climate, the two children and some fine-looking plants are kept under glass in a large terrarium: they are the food and the future that are the centre of the adults’ attention. For some reason, a ‘leader’ demands a sacrifice. In the opening night cast, this was danced by a transformed Nicola Del Freo who is always technically impeccable but is sometimes emotionally detached. Maybe stimulated by Alessandra Ferri (who created the role of the Mother for the American Ballet Theatre in 2018) he was dancing in a new light, and Ferri – as she has proved again and again – has a face that can communicate the pain of all humanity, and she drew the audience into her world of anguish.
Here comes the spoiler, but the ending has been given away many times online already. The Mother lets one of her children escape. The dancers rise and dip like meerkats as the Mother comforts her remaining child. The young girl returns to the glass cage to be engulfed by the pesticides that spray the plants, and the killing is coolly recorded by a small camera on a tripod. There are audible gasps from the Mother as she grasps the glass container now filled with white smoke. It is shocking.
The parallels with current news items, such as the current drought in northern Italy and Russia’s Black Sea blockade preventing Ukraine’s wheat exports, cannot be missed.
The second piece in the double bill was a new work commissioned by La Scala called LORE. It is set to Stravinsky’s Les Noces, and McGregor uses the same artistic team as AfteRite, except for Jon Clark who lights this piece rather than Lucy Carter, McGregor’s habitual collaborator. Vicki Mortimer designed the sets and costumes, Ravi Deepres created the film design, and Uzma Hameed devised the dramaturgy. Koen Kessels led the large orchestra in a thrilling performance from a packed pit.
Mortimer has created a simple, dark set with large flown cloths and screens for the video projections. There are pools of light creating performance areas, and a raised dais, the same size as AfteRite’s terrarium, which is not used for sacrifices but for ceremonies and rituals. Traditions are being passed down. The lore is preserved.
The woman at the centre of the piece is the girl, now grown-up, who escaped at the end of AfteRite. McGregor has moved ahead ten years in his ‘narrative’, corresponding to the ten years that separated the first production of The Rite of Spring in 1913 and that of Les Noces in 1923.
Stravinsky’s use of his huge orchestral resources – the score boasts five percussionists, four pianos, a chorus, and four vocal soloists – shows the composer moving towards a more mechanical and percussive style. He was having fun, however: apparently, he enjoyed placing the stresses of the Russian accents in the wrong places for the singers. The libretto uses Russian wedding lyrics and the snippets of themes are both borrowed and faux traditional melodies.
The group of eighteen dancers recall previous times and customs, like the marriage ceremony itself, and re-enact them with solemn respect. There’s no linear narrative, but fragments of stories that each viewer will put together in their own way, like archaeologists at a dig. At one point the dancers kneel to one side, resembling the chorus from a Noh drama, and use identical gestures as though commenting on the action before them at centre stage. The notion of a group moving as one contrasting with the individual, or duos, and trios, is McGregor putting up a mirror to life. Like AfteRite, there is a lot going on and trying to decide where to focus is exciting and frustrating, and a second viewing showed how much had been missed the first time around.
Towards the end of the 25-minute piece, three couples remain: two women, two men, and a man paired with the escaped daughter from AfteRite. The six dancers execute McGregor’s very demanding and complex series of movements with assurance and flair; in the opening cast they were Agnese Di Clemente and Alice Mariani, Claudio Coviello and Domenico Di Cristo, and Timofej Andrijashenko with Nicoletta Manni, the survivor.
They ceremoniously paint each other’s faces on the dais, as though they are exchanging vows, before moving downstage while a projection of a growing tree flourishes above their heads. But the tree is red and then seems to explode. Or is it an explosion like a firework? A celebration?