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'The Rite of Spring/Left Unseen', Phoenix Dance Theatre - Sadler's Wells Theatre

Phoenix Dance Theatre is a Leeds-based contemporary dance repertoire company, sustaining a vast contribution to contemporary dance in the north of England. Phoenix Dance Theatre’s artistic director, Sharon Watson, works with athletic and creative dancers from all over the globe. Intercultural exchange lies at the core of the Phoenix ethos – the company's first piece of narrative dance, Windrush: Movement of the People, was an important cultural response to a catalyst of social change in British history. Its latest realisation of The Rite of Spring has further enabled said exchange; Haitian choreographer, Jeanguy Saintus, uses his UK debut to diversify the western canon and contribute his own unique experiences to the British cultural palimpsest.

Natalie Alleston and the Company Dancers in Phoenix Dance Theatre’s The Rite of Spring, choreographed by Jeanguy Saintus. Photo by Tristram Kenton.

Saintus’s reworking of The Rite of Spring subverts a western imagination, as the aggregation of dancers emanate a spirituality which celebrates rather than sacrifices. As the stage lights slowly warm and intensify, haunting thoughts associated with a mass of bodies contoured only by shadow, disseminate, and Saintus's Haitian folklore takes form. Conceptually, the work is well-accented by Saintus's vision, taking a different narrative approach to that of Nijinsky, the original choreographer. Community and togetherness are choreographic notes that influence the work at all levels; these themes challenge ideas of female sacrifice which normally dominate The Rite of Spring narrative. It comes as no surprise that the commission of Jeanguy Saintus fostered discussion of the western prejudice that seeks to demonise Caribbean Vodou. However, his thorough artistic process ensures that there is no space for these uninformed tropes to be exacerbated. Phoenix have succeeded in diversifying the western canon by explicitly tackling these stereotypes through meaningful representation, direction and conversation.

The dancers rejoice as they are invited by Saintus to delve into his ritualistic religion, intriguing an audience through the dichotomy between religion and dancer. Audience members question whether the impetus of the dancers' motion is sourced from experience or imagination, and this is met with a palette of responses. Some state the latter while others, practitioners of Caribbean Vodou, explain how experience enables an otherworldly, enraptured happening as the dancing occurs. Ritual and repetition are most striking in Saintus’s choice of elemental and integral movement patterns. Fists drumming on hips as the dancers flock and circle one another are fundamental to the cacophony of rapture and catharsis, while reverberations localised to the torso area become a recurring motif that accents various movement codas. The buildup of intensity and pressure is almost tangible, as the dancers aggregate stage left and form a dense pack, synchronising to perform a shunting motion in second plié.

Manon Adrianow and Vanessa Vince-Pang in Phoenix Dance Theatre’s Left Unseen, choreographed by Amaury Lebrun. Photo by Drew Forsyth.

The costume design further accentuates Saintus's innovation in its intertwining of vibrancy, colour and texture. Costumier Yann Seabra supports the stunning performance through his use of abundant material. A serene uniformity is cast over the dancers in his rendering of crisp, white fabric around the torsos, while red pigmented hands help to both reveal and conceal the pops of turquoise and yellow beneath linen ruffled tailcoats. As the dancers immerse themselves in the Vodou religion through movement, their costumes appear to oscillate and undulate, creating a call-and-response relationship between dancer and apparel. Seabra’s choice and placement of colour certainly enhances the celebratory Geist of Saintus's choreography.

Edited by Alexia McDonald, Digital Editor