Phoenix Dance Theatre’s The Rite of Spring came with tantalising credentials: the company’s first collaboration with Opera North, and a UK debut for the Haitian choreographer Jeanguy Saintus, repurposing Stravinsky’s mighty score to soundtrack a vodou ceremony.
Unfortunately, London audiences only got a recording of the music – maybe this explains why the piece felt oddly lacklustre. Only partly, though. Of all the things you might expect from a Rite of Spring, lacking oomph is not one of them, but Saintus had jettisoned the idea of having a sacrificial victim, so the music drove you relentlessly towards nowhere in particular.
Surely a vodou ceremony could have been mined for a bit more raw drama. This is a religion that powered a revolution. Instead, Phoenix’s eight dancers – dressed in white, with black lips and wearing elbow-length gloves that suggested arms dipped in blood – ran through a broad spectrum of contemporary dance moves without really unlocking the feverish potency of this much-misunderstood faith’s intriguing rituals.
The first part had them offering an initiation “promise” to the gods (loas), preparing the space, reaching up to a single spotlight, and beginning the juddering movement that indicated the possessions at the heart of a ceremony, when the loas are invited down, inhabit (or “ride”) individuals and receive offerings. According to the programme, we see Ogou, the Marasa twins and the serpent spirit Damballa. It would have been nice to have them delineated more strongly, but in the general melee that represented the collective power of the ceremony they were frustratingly elusive presences.
The climax was the arrival of Erzuli, the embodiment of femininity – her final choice of “horse” (a man) being marked out with… a multicoloured skirt. It’s an invigorating touch to replace Rite’s sacrificial death of a woman with the triumphant arrival of a conquering female spirit – but the wow factor just wasn’t there in the delivery. Full marks to Phoenix’s dancers, though, whose intense commitment and athletic talent shone.
Sadly, the evening’s first offering was also something of a disappointment. Amaury Lebrun’s Left Unseen is described as an exploration of “how we rely on our five senses to find our place and navigate the world”. A puzzlingly nebulous idea (how do you dance a sense of smell?), which the piece never got a satisfying grip on.
Again, the full company occupied the stage, wearing white shirts and dun-coloured trousers – their vigorous twisting, crouching and kicking soon extended into stretching out, in pairs and singly, to find the limits of their physical space. There was a sense of vulnerability and isolation – heightened by glitchy music from Alva Noto & Ryuichi Sakamoto and Hildur Gudnadottir – which crystallised in a duet with Prentice Whitlow and Vanessa Vince-Pang; he without sight, she attacking him.
This and other pairings lurched into a sense of co-dependency, as the space around the dancers became a frightening unknown. One trio, repeatedly covering each other’s eyes, fell into a rhythm of arm and leg blocks even as they clung to each other. But, frustratingly, a lot of Left Unseen was strong contemporary movement to no clear purpose. And I still don’t know how you dance a sense of smell.