The Rite of Spring: Art of combining Bharatnatyam and Russian ballet

Dancer and choreographer Seeta Patel she was grateful for the opportunity to be the first to present the compelling interpretation of The Rite of Spring through Bharatnatyam

considers her version of The Rite of Spring performed at Sadler’s Wells in London as a personal achievement

Pooja Shrivastava

BRITISH audiences are set to witness a unique experience through a never-seen-before amalgamation of Igor Stravinsky’s iconic ballet with Bharatnatyam, created by award-winning dancer and choreographer Seeta Patel.

Russian composer Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring is being revisited this week, this time through the lens of an Indian classical dance form known for its unique mixture of music, rhythm, and expressions.

Joining forces with Patel is the acclaimed Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Under the baton of Kiril Karabits, the tour is set to host the performances at three large venues – Poole, Manchester and Basingstoke.

Patel told Eastern Eye she was grateful for the opportunity to be the first to present the compelling interpretation of The Rite of Spring through Bharatnatyam.

“The Rite of Spring is such a popular work, not just within classical music, but also for choreographers in western contemporary dance and ballet as it has been reinterpreted several times. In fact, it is now almost like a rite of passage for many choreographers at some point of time,” she said.

“It was interesting to me that it was never, ever done with any sort of Indian dance form before. It really surprised me, and I felt very lucky that I landed on it.

“The two forms – Western classical music, and specifically Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring score, and Bharatnatyam – go so well together because of their deep, visceral rhythmic quality.

Seeta Patel

“The power that we generate in Bharatnatyam with the footwork really complements this extremely epic, iconic score. So yes, I felt very lucky it’s me that stumbled upon it through sort of experimenting with a few ideas,” she said.

Patel never doubted the piece and said she was sure from the start this was something that was going to “definitely work”.

The major staging in three venues across the UK follows on from the critically acclaimed show at Sadler’s Wells in London earlier this year.

“The London show happened after a lot of waiting due to Covid and other reasons, so when we were able to realise its full vision – which was to have a cast of 12 dancers along with the full Bournemouth Symphony live orchestra at one of the most prestigious venues in the world – I felt what we did was something quite seminal,” she said.

Normally in a solo dance form, The Rite Of Spring is a rare chance for audiences to see contemporary Bharatnatyam performed in an ensemble, Patel explained. It also subverts the original narrative of a single sacrificial ‘chosen one’ by elevating the character to a deity unto which the whole community sacrifice themselves.

Joining the 10-strong dance line-up on tour is Adhya Shastry, winner of the BBC Young Dancer 2022. The ensemble includes four dancers from the UK, with the remainder from all over the world, including Holland, Malaysia and India.

Finding professional Bharatnatyam dancers was the real challenge in this recreation, Patel admitted.

“It’s not an art form that is represented enough. I had to look around the world for not only the quality of dancers I was looking for, but also for open-mindedness from those dancers who would want to be in a project like this and want to do something that isn’t just solo.”

Looking for dancers from around the world came with its own obstacles, such as cost implications, visas, immigration, and accommodation, she revealed.

Everything was very expensive for a small company like hers, Patel said. She knew she could not achieve this level of iconic work without dancers from around the world, she added, acknowledging the support of the Arts Council of England and several other organisations who put in money early on, so she could realise the smaller version before she took it to fruition in the large iteration.

Born in London, Patel started learning Bharatnatyam at the age of 10 as a hobby which soon became the focus of her life.

“Nobody in my family was into music or dance. My parents were born in East Africa while my sister and I were born in London. It started as just a hobby like it happens for a lot of young south Asian people,” she said.

“It wasn’t something serious. I could have chosen anything else, but I chose dance. There is no glamorous beginning here – it’s just me as a little girl from Bristol in the 1980s going to a Saturday school to learn a new art form.

“I just fell in love with it and eventually it became my life. I think there are lots of pitfalls in the journey, where one can fall out of love any time. But I somehow managed to make it work through all of those.”

Patel revealed how she almost went into a mainstream profession when she started studying medicine at Nottingham University. During the middle of the course, she got offered a job in a dance company, so she decided to take a sabbatical, something which gave her a “good chunk of time” to gauge and figure out if dance was for her.

Today, Patel is an award-winning choreographer, dancer and activist. She has worked with a number of prestigious Bharatnatyam and contemporary dance companies, including the Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company, Mavin Khoo as well as award-winning DV8 Physical Theatre, and performed at renowned venues such as London’s Southbank Centre, the Royal Opera House and Sadler’s Well.

She actively supports emerging dance talents through her choreographic and mentoring work.

The full-scale tour of The Rite of Spring in collaboration with a world-famous orchestra marks a major step up in the profile and ambition of her company Seeta Patel Dance, following its newly acquired National Portfolio status, awarded by the Arts Council England in November 2022.

“I have been doing this for 20 years as a freelance artist. Last year’s Arts Council England’s support and recognition have given us three years of funding. It has allowed me to finally have a salary that gives me more stability, giving me room to do more work. So alongside creating and performing, I now also have the resources to meaningfully do talent development within the sector for younger dancers,” she said.

Under Karabits in his last season as chief conductor, Patel’s recreation will play live in two venues – The Lighthouse at Poole on Wednesday (15) and at the Anvil in Basingstoke next Thursday (23). At both venues the orchestra will also play an exclusive musical interlude while in Poole, Karabits will additionally conduct music from Chary Nurymov’s ballet The Fate of Sukhovey.

Patel considers her version of The Rite of Spring performed at Sadler’s Wells in London as a personal achievement

At the Lowry, Manchester, next Monday (21), the format of the show will differ, with a recorded version and the addition of a special prequel, a solo dance by Patel herself accompanied by classical Indian music played live on stage. The special piece entitled Shree explores Bharatnatyam in its more widely recognised solo format, taking audiences “on the journey of Mother Earth from birth to destruction, preparing them for her deliverance” in the ensuing The Rite of Spring, she said.

By uniting Bharatnatyam’s intricate rhythmic footwork, geometric and dynamic movements, and expressive prowess with Stravinsky’s score and a full orchestra, it seems that Patel’s company is bridging the gap between cultures.

 The Rite of Spring performance at London’s Sadler’s Wells remains close to Patel’s heart. She considers it her “very personal achievement and a moving experience” since she was able to contribute something “really valuable” to the sector.

Patel hopes to showcase her recreation overseas as well.

“I think people saw the potential in the work early on. And then some of them continued the journey with me to upscale it. The next natural step for me would be to take it internationally. I hope what we built off this upscale version can be taken overseas,” she said.

Seeta Patel Dance’s The Rite of Spring will be hosted from Wednesday (15) to next Thursday (23) at Lighthouse in Poole, the Anvil in Basingstoke and the Lowry in Manchester.