The gnomic title of Meryl Tankard’s 2009 dance work veils its origins as yet another version of The Rite of Spring. The Oracle was given at the QEH the day after the Festival Hall’s resident Philharmonia Orchestra had played Stravinsky’s score on its centenary date. ‘If only we could have a live orchestra’, Tankard lamented in a post-show session after The Oracle’s sole London performance (to an LPO recording).
She explained that The Oracle had originated in workshop sessions in Sydney without any intention of using Stravinsky’s 1913 music. She and her frequent collaborator, the visual artist and designer Régis Lansac, were experimenting with moving images based on paintings by a Norwegian artist, Odd Nerdrum, who depicts strange human bodies in desolate landscapes. The third partner in the workshop was Australian dancer Paul White, who has since joined the Pina Bausch Tanztheater Wuppertal. Tankard, Bausch’s first Australian recruit, had danced in Pina’s 1975 Rite of Spring. Nothing could have been further from her thoughts, Tankard claimed, until a chance playing of a Rite recording coincided with the choreography she and White had already created.
It’s evident, however, that in the mind of Meryl Tankard – iTMOm – Nijinsky must subsequently have loomed large. White, the solo dancer, becomes the Chosen One, driven by fate and the music to breaking point. He experiences ecstasy and torment in the second half of the piece, culminating in Stravinsky’s dance of death. He seems a tortured being in soul and body, striving to discover his true identity, half-man, half-god.
The opening section is given over to Lansac’s video manipulations of White’s body, projected onto a canvas screen in the shape of a Greek temple. Ambient sounds – birds, frogs, thunder – accompany hallucinatory images that pulse in kaleidoscopic patterns. Pagan references contrast with Christian ones: church bells toll and a baroque Magnificat plays as body parts divide and multiply, forming crosses and rose windows as well as suggesting female reproductive organs.
These dismembered two-dimensional shapes give birth to White in person as Stravinsky’s music starts. He’s on his back, muscular limbs catching the light as he writhes. He becomes caught up in a dark, velvety cloak, which covers his head, dangling forwards. Blinded, he caresses it as if it were a woman or the long tresses of a bride; he coils it round his semi-naked body, binds it into a minotaur’s bull head. Then he wears it as a Martha Graham skirt, swirling round his legs, flaring in cartwheels. He is a shaman, possessed by visions imagined on the screen behind him.
He becomes aware of a second self on the screen, mirroring his moves like a shadow with a will of its own. Nijinsky’s agonised diaries come to mind, the record of a disturbed psyche fearful of madness. A smoky cone of light confines White within a circle on the floor. He is now wearing nothing but underpants and an ancient bonnet on his head like a baby or a lunatic. Its strings fly as he jiggles and jumps to the music’s pounding – a muscular puppet whose spasms leave human sweat stains where he has fallen. Gasping, he covers his head again with the cloak and leaves the darkened stage.
Dramatically, this is the weakest section of the work, giving the dancer time to prepare for the climactic finale. His nightmarish face appears on the screen, staring pupils painted on closed eyelids, eyes wide shut. Then a harsh overhead light exposes White’s naked body, coated with powder, as he dances the Chosen One’s death. He does dance it, erupting in leaps as the music shrieks, timing his tumbling, scuttling and skidding to fit the frantic rhythms. On the final notes, a beam of light catches him in mid-air – then blackout.
It’s a virtuoso accomplishment by all the collaborators. (The atmospheric lighting, designed by Damien Cooper and Matt Cox, has further credits for the adaptor and realiser on tour.) Aided by the visual effects, a solitary dancer embodies an entire cast of characters – including most of those in Akram Khan’s iTMOi rite: shaman, sybil, virgin, warrior, tribal scapegoat. And he’s Nijinsky, a mystic believer in God, riven by his own demons. But Stravinsky’s score in this melodramatic recording, conducted by Kent Nagano, is too huge for a single figure. Powerful though he is, White seems puny, swamped by Stravinsky’s spring sacrifice. Maybe it’s vainglorious even to attempt to stage yet another Rite. It won’t stop choreographers trying.