Seeta Patel’s Re-Imagining of The Rite of Spring
The angular and precise language of Bharatanatyam is a fitting dance form with which to re-interpret Stravinsky’s iconic score. In fact as I watch Seeta Patel’s interpretation of The Rite of Spring and witness the two- dimensionality of the dancers in space, the fast and furious stamping out of rhythms or intricate foot-work, I imagine how appropriate this vibrant classical Indian style would have looked as an alternative to the Ballet Russes’s revolutionary ballet in 1913.
Patel infuses Bharatanatyam with contemporary movement to make it looser, more fluid and less traditional. In terms of roles and the narrative her re-worked version is progressive in its gender fluidity. The six dancers wear unisex tunic-dresses, have braided hair gelled to their scalps and perform movement that is not gender specific; and here the sacrificial female virgin of the original ballet is instead male – Sooraj Subramaniam, who is celebrated as the ‘Chosen One’. The Chosen One embodies the role of a divinity, rather than an abused victim, and to whom the other five eventually submit themselves. A visually striking finale features the dignified Subramaniam standing in a second position plie, arms held skywards against a violent crimson backdrop, with the red ribbons of his cloak cascading down his body like blood. In gestures of worship and honour, the dancers pass through his legs, using his divine body as a gateway into another world or heaven.
Another interesting departure from the traditional version of Rite, is a short dream section which divides the score into two sections. Here the Chosen One sleeps in a spiritual sanctuary while the others approach lovingly and blow magical dust over his reclining body. Stravinsky’s music is replaced by the warm, chanting, solo voice of Roopa Mahadevan and the fate of the Chosen One is temporarily suspended in this calm, nurturing place. It also provides a welcome interlude from the musical score’s pace, intensity and aggression.
Overall Patel’s version is less violent, ruthless and misogynistic but that doesn’t mean to say that movement quality or technical rigour is compromised. The unbelievably intricate footwork characteristic of Bharatanatyam is executed with such speed, tight turns and forceful arm work that I reel from its frenetic energy and urgency. In the crescendoing percussion sections of the music, the dancers extended fingers pulse like small daggers. Faces remain calm yet expressive – as does the carriage of the upper body as if they are possessed by some supernatural power that carries them through the turbulence of the sound.
In the first scene, the performers bathed in fresh spring light, take part in a kind of game, chasing each other playfully but also with a sense of purpose. They portray both enjoyment but also a confused anxiety, not knowing who is being chased or who is the chaser. It’s curious to see how they exchange spiritual authority one minute with ordinary innocence the next and infuse their actions with an exciting unpredictability.
The dynamic choreography and music drives the group on relentlessly and soon their bodies are dripping in sweat. While there are many points of unison there are also solos for each person. Here we see their distinctive qualities: the seductive expressivity of Ash Mukherjee, the fierce precision of Indu Panday and the playful fluidity of Moritz Zavan. Kamala Devan and Sarah Gasser conclude this impressive cohort of performers who labour to their limits and truthfully expose the exhaustion which the work demands.
Patel’s Rite is minimalist in design yet the significance of earth and nature is conjured in the exquisite lighting by Warren Letton whose rich washes of violet, crimson and gold are visually arresting. Through the perspective of a South Asian gaze, the brutality and finality of the original ballet’s pagan sacrifice is tempered by a rich spirituality and the optimistic suggestion of an after-life. It’s still scary but less barbaric.
Patel’s ongoing commitment to support emerging Classical South Asian and contemporary dancers is shown in a short piece which precedes Rite. Performed by young dancers working in both styles, Dance Dialogues provides a useful introduction to Patel’s modern approach to Bharatanatyam. The other guest of the evening is solo cellist Celine Lepicard who plays Bach’s cello suite 1. While the fifteen minute act undoubtedly showcases the expertise of Lepicard and Patel’s respect for classical music, its connection to both danced pieces is rather unclear but does make the evening a fuller experience.