Dancing to The Rite of Spring? Chances are that after Nijinsky, and perhaps that catchy line at the end of the Pet Shop Boys song, those words will make you think of the monumental 1975 version by Pina Bausch. People who have seen it, myself included, tend to think: no one could ever match that. So I fully expected a 2010 version, by Australian Meryl Tankard (a former Bausch dancer) with soloist Paul White (who recently joined Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal), to fall in the shadow of the masterwork. But Tankard’s The Oracle is a different creature altogether, one that emerges fully and in its own right. Perhaps that’s partly because, as Tankard revealed in the post-show Q&A, a substantial amount of the choreography was made before Stravinsky even crossed their minds.
Which is weird, because The Oracle looks designed for this music. Even weirder, given that both Tankard and White made it clear in the Q&A that they hadn’t thought at all of Nijinsky: it repeatedly made me think of Nijinsky. When White first appears on the shadowed stage, he carries a long cloak that – after he has stroked it, sat upon it with stylised, scimitar arms, and laid on top of it with pelvis arched upwards – made me think of the fetishised robe in Nijinsky’s iconic L’Après-midi d’un faune. The opening video sequence (by Régis Lansac) turns images of White’s body into abstract, radial patterns that might be echoes of the spiral, compound-eye drawings in Nijinsky’s diary that charted his journey into madness. Later, White’s dancing body on stage is doubled on screen, so that he appears as a split self, schizophrenically tormented.
But these are interpretations based on background knowledge, and what makes The Oracle really work are its physical effects. On the darkened stage, the various lighting states – a horizontal strip, a diagonal path, a circular rim – form harsh constraints for White, and he struggles inside them as if they were cages. His dancing is raw, exposed: he wears only a slip of underwear, and the cloak, wrap and hat that he intermittently wears function more as props than as clothing. The stark lighting rakes his body so that while we see its muscular power, what we feel is its vulnerability.
Stravinsky’s score has never felt more sadistic. Its relentless, lacerating chords seem to lash White’s body, its lulls are uneasy respites before the next onslaught. White’s bruising performance is extraordinary, combining athletic prowess with aching helplessness. He launches himself against the music’s savage blows, turning cartwheels while the cloak flaps ominously against his torso like the beat of black wings. He lies supine, jolted as if by electric shocks. He scrambles and reaches, one foot quivering perilously upwards, before tumbling backwards like a spent wave. And he walks with head bowed and legs, arms, hands, knees, toes turned inwards, the very embodiment of abjection. By the end, this powerful dancer has been pushed to the limit: for some time we’ve been hearing the ragged gasp of his breathing; now he is naked.
This is a mighty, and mightily disturbing piece, even – perhaps especially – when it has finished and the cathartic applause begins. Almost inescapably, you sense that White himself has been the votive offering in this rite of carnal mortification, acted out to satiate its cruel celebrants – us.