18 MAY 1962, Page 15


The Vision of the Moonboy

By CLIVE BARNES Originally Stravinsky, the designer Roerich and the choreographer Nijinsky conceived the work as a myth of pagan Russia. This Russian Conception was kept by Leonide Massine when he produced the second Diaghilev version in 1920. Most of the subsequent stagings have rejected the ethnology and concentrated on nothing but primitive ritual. MacMillan and his designer, Sidney Nolan, in the Royal Ballet's new version have gone even further than their predecessors. While keeping to Stravinsky's vestigial synopsis, they have visualised the ballet in nearly abstract terms. This is no longer a primitive race, but primitive man, or perhaps even the primitive in modern man.

MacMillan's choreography is eclectic in its influence—so, for that matter, is Stravinsky's music—but these influences have come together in one individual style, again as in Stravinsky's music. One can see the eurhythmics of brutal- ised basic dance in the dancers' crouching stance, their swaying, distorted pelvises, their flagrantly angled arms and splayed fingers. To this primitivism MacMillan has added jazz dancing: the jumping explosive grouping, dancers sud- denly outstretching an arm in a release of frustration, an untidy pulse of disorganised movement. Here we are in the Jerome Robbins country of N.Y. Export: Op. Jazz; yet such jazz elements merge almost indistinguishably with the animal barbarity of MacMillan's free-style visualisation of primitive dance.

This blend of jazz and basic movement is not surprising. Recently the Soviet choreographer, Igor Moiseyev, produced a dance parody of rock if roll and jazz dancing, calling it Back to the Apes. The title has its point. More surprising is the manner in which MacMillan has taken a hint or two from Fokine's Firebird when he wants to stress the ritual formalities. His savages are still in a type of human society, and Mac- Millan points this out with the occasional, stiff tribal grouping or formation. After a sort of mad conga-cum-charleston, the dancers collapse• in a line snaking across the stage, falling down sequentially like a pack of cards.

The style, 'which, while recognisably Mac- Millan's, has nothing to do with his earlier choreography, is of less importance than the way it is used. He matches the music remarkably well. He catches the rhythms with more sense than strictness, keeping to the rhythmic flow without trying to equal Stravinsky's intricacy. He is also careful to parallel the orchestration with the massing of his dancers. All this was also achieved by the earlier Massine version which 1 saw a few years ago in Stockholm. Where MacMillan has really succeeded is in making a positive addition to the score rather than an interesting choreographic parallel. MacMillan's dance images of spring (the 'opening flower' group with which the ballet opens, for example), fertility, desolation and animal vitality take Stravinsky's argument literally a stage further than the music. And Nolan's scenery and cos- tumes take the argument a stage further still.

Over this whole writhing mass of sub- humanity looms Nolan's terrifying second back- cloth depicting a huge shining disc on a stalk. Nolan calls this totem symbol 'a Moonboy,' and whether it is meant to represent a phallic image or a tree of life we do not know. Certainly it looks forbiddingly like a mushroom cloud, question-marking the ambiguity of these strange aboriginal rites. Are they meant to be in the dim past of prehistory, or are they perhaps in- tended as an uncomfortable vision of the future? Are these savage worshippers, with their blood- daubed, mud-caked bodies, praying to the God that struck them down?

The ballet is compellingly well danced by the ensemble. Monica Mason's Chosen Virgin, the only solo role, is a fascinating creation. Jerking along like an articulated puppet, her eyes glittering with fear behind her mask-like chalk-white face, she makes a tragic figure out of this predestined sacrificial victim. Finally, there is Colin Davis's conducting. In the concert hall it is easy enough (well, if not easy, at least possible) to whip up Stravinsky's huge orchestral forces into a shriek of primitive man. It is Davis's achievement that while retaining all the excitement and energy of the score, he makes it a suitable, practicable partner for the dancing. He cues his dancers, as to the manner born, and altogether plays an essential part in proving that Stravinsky was wrong in wanting the score kept to the concert hall. The Rite of Spring can be magnificently staged as a ballet—MacMillan, Nolan and Davis have proved it.

A friend of mine describes ballet—he means classical ballet—as 'just a lot of hopping about,' and of course he is right. To dance is to jump. If that is an oversimplification, let me say, not quite meaninglessly, that elevation (jumping) is to dancing what melody is to music. When the twentieth-century dance reformers rejected classical dancing, one of the first things to be abandoned was the hopping and the jumping. The modern dance pioneers, in trying to make dancing more meaningful and more natural, cut out classical technique, replacing it with new idioms that were, inter alia, literally down to earth. In America modern dancing has flowered, and one sign of this flowering has been, reveal- ingly, the reinstated importance of jumping in its dance vocabulary. Martha Graham's dancers, for example, jump like mountain goats. In Europe the modern dance stopped developing round about 1930, and still clings to Mother Earth.

I was reminded of this the other Sunday when the distinguished Russian-born Israeli dancer Deborah Bertonoff, who is on a European tour sponsored by the Israeli Government, gave a special dance recital at the Prince of Wales Theatre. Miss Bertonoff has worked in the United States and, of course, in Israel, but it is clear that, despite any later influences, her dance style derives from her pre-war European training. The range of her technique seemed extremely limited, and while all her work was honest and professional, her means of expression looked, with all respect, decidedly the worse for wear. Fortunately she is blessed with an expressive clown's face—with sad eyes and a tight-drawn mouth. This gave her mime studies a poignancy which in flashes reminded me of Marcel Marceau. But her dancing could not sustain an evening, and its old-fashioned, earth-bound idiom provided, in passing, a sad comment on the failure of European `modern' dance to make a way for itself in the modern world.