Matthew Paluch sees the Seeta Patel Dance in The Rite of Spring
|Title||The Rite of Spring|
|Company||Seeta Patel Dance|
|Venue||Sadler's Wells, London|
|Date||14 March 2023|
Sadler's Wells should consider a name change – The Rite of Spring Wells? Current programming begs the question: is it possible to have too much of a good thing?
There have been Rites by Pina Bausch “danced by a newly assembled company of dancers from African countries”, Mats Ek, Israel Galván and Dada Masilo (The Sacrifice, inspired by Rite), with most versions offering their own, individual take on the powerhouse Igor Stravinsky score and controversial, especially in 1913, Vaslav Nijinsky choreography and concept.
I wasn't able to see all the offerings but I did witness the Ek for English National Ballet and loved it. I come from the Kenneth MacMillan camp having danced his version, and adored doing so, at English National Ballet. Later, as a theatregoer, I was introduced to the Bausch version which felt integral at the time, and still does (in ways). And here we go again, with another proposition by Seeta Patel.
Patel's work “marries Indian classical dance and Western classical music” using Bharatanatyam as the dance language underpinning – the South Indian form of classical dance. The overall premise is described as a “spiritual exploration… through an Eastern philosophical lens”. Ek wasn't so far removed from this, using a Japanese framework, or at least that's how I read it – in relation to aesthetics, societal values, and the presence of ritual.
Ek used the heteronormative format of male/female relationships very overtly. Patel does so less obviously, as her work doesn't feature blatant gendering (visually or choreographically), and she also flips the role of the Chosen One from the generally expected female to male, further elevating the individual to that of Deity status, to whom all others sacrifice themselves.
The flipping of sex in the Chosen One role isn't breaking news though, first happening (to my knowledge) at the Royal Ballet in the late 1980s with Simon Rice in the MacMillan version. Deborah MacMillan (Kenneth's wife, and head of the MacMillan Foundation) later sanctioned, encouraged even, other male dancers to have the opportunity at ENB (1999). What made this ‘flip' so interesting was the fact the choreography stayed exactly the same for all, regardless of their being, allowing for riveting individual interpretations, and (healthy) comparisons of choreographic execution. Gender neutrality in action, one could say, long before it became a ‘thing' – a cog in the ever–bewildering Culture Wars (#teamlineker).
I could go a little further and say that it's my one niggling issue with the seminal Bausch version: the predictable, heteronormative representation with bare-chested Alpha men, and silk negligée wearing victimised women. But let's leave that alone for now. Back to Patel.
The work presented by Patel initially toured in the UK from 2019–2021, and the 2023 updated version offers an extended cast, and live music from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (sounding more inspired than refined under Kirill Karabits' baton).
The evening starts with the solo Shree by Patel, which she dances herself depicting “Mother Earth from birth to destruction, preparing for her deliverance through The Rite of Spring”. She is accompanied by South Indian musicians (Samyukta Ranganathan [vocals], Prathap Ramachandran [percussion] and Vijay Venkat [flute]).
It's rare that people do what they say they're going to, and Patel is one of the few who succeeds. The solo really is a representation of the premise. We're offered a clear journey from birth to destruction… well not so clear at times as the first five minutes could do with a lighting rethink as it feels criminal to miss out on all the detail, with such intricate movement of the arms, hands, and fingers, throughout the initial birth scene.
She's going for atmosphere, which I understand, but there's a visual compromise in practice.
However, context feels abundant. The opening effectively communicates the pre ‘big bang', helped no end by subtle projections (Wayne Sables) of distant, unidentifiable light and Ranganathan's atmospheric vocal breathing and wailing (which verges on grating at times).
Certain motif moments feel too long, and in need of editing, but Patel's multifaceted Gaia is continually interesting to watch: a conjuror and cultivator who is playful and sensitive, though ultimately defeated.
The connection with the music is also incredibly potent. That's the beauty of it being live – the dancer and musician can be reactive, and this is abundantly clear.
The movement ranges from narrative mime to repeated, pure dance phrases, and Patel does them all with ease and genuine execution.
The storytelling aspect is omnipresent without being heavy-handed – not easy – and this subsequently means that when Gaia is eventually gagged and broken at the end, one feels an empathetic connection without having to try. A very worthwhile start to the evening.
The second half opens with the cast of 12 in a developed Rite on a bare stage with a kaleidoscope of colourful light hues (Warren Letton) throughout. Patel doesn't stray far from existing formats, the first section focusing on the group, communicating her reading of community. The second on the Chosen One/Deity, which has an interesting choreographic twist… though I'm unsure it paid off in the moment.
Most importantly Stravinsky's score continues to inspire: the conductor, musician, choreographer, dancer, and spectator. It seems to bring out the best in people, and Patel is no different. Her Rite is movement rich, detailed and very musical – both rhythmically and melodically – including counterpoint. She uses the group well: how they move with purpose through space, execute canon, shape patterning (narratively so, like a 19th-century Romantic corps de ballet – think Wilis), use level and emphasise juxtaposition of dynamic – confirming her musicological skill of analysing, and then using all of the possible layers of a score. I'd also add that Bharatanatyam, as a language, features percussive, loud foot stamping, and I believe Patel's production mics up the stage floor adding an additional aspect of sound to the already, abundantly endless Stravinsky melange. If that's not the case then major kudos to the stampers.
However all the positive aspects of the group work prowess can cause a lack of the individual in both movement and narrative at times. It is there, but one has to work hard to engage with it. That said, her community is one of ancient people, committed to their cause. And the dancers don't let her down in their conviction, though I'd argue that some of the ‘performing' was a little OTT in the facial expression department.
Patel is also adept at using profile in her creative language with strong frieze–like imagery that communicates powerfully from the stage evoking Nijinsky (though more Faun-esque than anything else). These are countered by undulating, spherical phrases peppered with dynamic pencil turns and travelling, speed-of-light chaînées on bended knee.
The additional interlude that sees the Deity being pampered in preparation for part two didn't do masses for me and further confirmed some hammy interpretations. I wonder whether directed or intuitive…
The final section has a lot of focus on a red bundle being passed between the cast whilst moving around the stage. When eventually unfolded, it's placed on the Deity as he stands centrally, and acts as a spider's web for the frenzied worshippers to hang off or manically cultivate: think spiritual maypole in cult commune. As the music builds the Deity becomes ever more powerfully veiled in his stillness, and the community increasingly wild and convinced in their purpose. This is the choreographic twist mentioned earlier, where normally we see the Chosen One being lost in sacrificial madness, we now see it happening to the other ten group members (I don't know why number 11 doesn't feature). Though this was another moment where I missed the power and intimacy of the individual experience. Yes, each worshipper has a ‘moment' before they disappear in sacrifice through the Deity's legs (?!)… but they aren't long enough to communicate a satisfying amount of anything. For that reason, the piece doesn't end with gusto and is made ever weaker by the Deity doing a slow–mo rotation in silence as the lights dim. A real nonending.
My lasting impression of Patel is good though, as a captivating dancer and capable choreographer. She interweaves equality throughout her work. It can be seen visually in the simple clothing the entire cast wear (billowing tunics & trousers by Anshu and Jason – smallshop, Bangalore), and the movement itself – which seems to transcend regimented notions of sex and gender. And ultimately, she's as musical as hell – which is always a good reason to return. So I'll see you there.
Matthew Paluch was awarded a place at The Royal Ballet School in 1990 where he graduated in 1997. His first four years as a professional dancer were spent working with London City Ballet, Scottish Ballet, K-Ballet and English National Ballet, becoming a full-time member of ENB until leaving in 2006.
Matthew graduated from the Royal Academy of Dance, Professional Dancers' Teaching Diploma in 2007, and was fomerly on faculty at The Royal Ballet School. He completed his Masters in Ballet Studies at Roehampton University in 2011 and has been a freelance writer since 2010. He is a Trustee (2021) of the Royal Academy of Dance and works in the Law Sector.