Myth and Legend: Fairy-tales and dance

Akram Khan Company: iTMOi

Royal Ballet: Hansel and Gretel

Royal Ballet: Raven Girl, Symphony in C

Audrey Niffenegger, Raven Girl (Jonathan Cape, £16.99)

The hundredth anniversary of the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring may, for dance-goers, have inspired a certain dread. The rhythmic power of Stravinsky’s music is so compelling that, while choreographers long to work with it, the results are rarely entirely successful.

The standard English translation of Stravinsky’s title loses the essential word ‘sacrifice’ whch in French shares a root with sacre’, but this is what powers the music: the cycle of birth and death through ritual violence and ritual belief. Akram Khan has chosen to turn to these ideas for iTMOi (an off-putting abbreviation for ‘In the Mind of Igor’), instead of confronting the music directly, an interesting and original decision. Instead, Khan has worked with regular collaborator Nitin Sawhney, as well as more the orchestrally inclined Jocelyn Pook and the minimalist textures of Ben Frost, to produce a 65-minute (double the length of Rite) tour of a mysterious world where death is ever-present.

The piece opens with a roar, literally, followed by a tolling bell. The shadows reveal a shaman or preacher (T. J. Lowe) pacing and ranting. Only snatches are audible – ‘and the Lord said’, ‘blood oath’, ‘Abraham’ ‘only son’ and, resonantly, ‘sacrifice’. Gradually the inhabitants of this world of dreams gather around a woman in a white hooped skirt, a bride-figure with one breast bared and scarified. In the folk-inflected dances that follow, rather than the bright tones of Mark Morris’ folk-movement (although there are interesting and unexpected resonances between these two artists), the violence of a connection to the earth is stamped out.

When one of the dancers (Hannes Langolf) steps out of the rhythm, seeming to question its purpose, he becomes a pariah, even as a second dancer (Ching-Ying Chien) is daubed with white chalk, chosen. The final segment suggests that the questioner, flayed and imprisoned, is, indeed, the self-chosen. But there are no certainties. The work, like Stravinsky’s own, draws strength from its jagged ensemble pieces. That it has no answers, nor any definitive interpretation, is its power.

One of the functions of fairy-tales is to make our world comprehensible, and they do so by highlighting the strangeness of theirs. The minutiae of those worlds do not matter. Why Odette in Swan Lake is a swan, or the Immortal Kotschei in The Firebird keeps his soul in an egg are, in worlds that have been created, irrelevant.

At the Royal Opera House, both Wayne McGregor (on the main stage) and Liam Scarlett (in the smaller Linbury) have attempted to create fairy-tale worlds, Scarlett with a traditional story, McGregor with a new one.

Scarlett’s Hansel and Gretel has been updated to 1950s suburbia, and Jon Bausor’s designs, both derelict house and horror-filled basement-dungeon, are, in isolation, splendid. As stage-sets, however, they are simply inept, their traverse structure producing both cramped dance-space for the performers and blocked sight-lines for the audience. And while Scarlett, in his previous narrative work, Sweet Violets, tried to cram in too much detail, here he has gone in the opposite direction and too little drama is spread thinly over an entire evening.

One single, and terrifying, moment, however, reminds us what a Scarlett is. The children return home and find their parents gone. The boy picks up a beer, the girl tries on her stepmother’s dress: in a single gesture they prepare to hand down misery through the generations.

Wayne McGregor’s Raven Girl, based on a novella in words and aquatints by Audrey Niffenegger, suffers from a similar thinness. Niffenegger’s book, at less than 80 pages, attempts to tell the story of two generations – of a postman who falls in love with a raven; and of their child, the Raven Girl, human-shaped but raven-voiced, who longs to fly.

Niffenegger’s tale is frustratingly both too detailed and too vague. The postman finds his raven-bride when he delivers a mysterious letter. The story of the letter takes up 5 per cent of the book, but once the characters are where the author needs him, she merrily abandons the device. We are told about the handwriting of this mysterious letter, but the hero-prince is given no such introduction: he appears only on the penultimate page.

Niffenegger, and McGregor, strive to create archetypes, fairy-tales’ formula for embodying emotions and fears we are unable to acknowledge, but they merely produce stock characters. An archetypal prince represents bravery, or loyalty, or a quest; a generic prince wears a crown. In both book and ballet, we know the Raven Prince is a prince because, well, because that’s what he’s called. He fills the prince-shaped hole in the story.

McGregor has not yet learnt to tell a story through dance, and onstage the narrative and dance are sequential, rather than simultaneous, with the mime sections too basic to carry the complexities of the story. In the novella the boy (onstage Paul Kay) in love with the Raven Girl (Sarah Lamb) merely vanishes; on stage, he returns to the land of the ravens, sliding into an opening in the cliff. When the never-before-mentioned Raven Prince (Eric Underwood) shows up for the last five minutes of the ballet, we wonder if he is the boy grown up? And if not, who is he?

The dazzling designs by Vicki Mortimer and the film projections by Ravi Deepres rescue the evening. Yet even there, the mechanics trip up the novice storyteller. The point of the tale, insofar as it has a point, is the longing of the Raven Girl for flight. Instead of magic, her wings are bestowed on her by a Wozzeck-like doctor (Thiago Soares) in a grisly surgical episode. But after their beauty is displayed (and they are very beautiful – credit to Max Humphries and Verity Sadler), logistics demand that they vanish: dancers can’t perform burdened by three-foot wings.

The cumulative effect brings home their creators’ failure to understand the nature of fairy-tales. If Swan Lake is not about honour and loyalty, then it becomes a ballet about sex with birds. Raven Girl, in its inability to transcend reality, ends up being no more than that.

The Royal Ballet has specialized in narrative dance for much of its existence. To have one choreographer who does not understand the basics of story-telling is a misfortune. As Oscar Wilde never said, to have two, and fail to provide any form of assistance, such as a dramaturg, looks very like carelessness.