Birthday Rites: Tangling With 100 Years of The Rite of Spring

Image: PanicLabImage: PanicLab

Alexandrina Hemsley 

The Birthday Party by Jamila Johnson-Small

I think of evening sun and the evening of youth.

I think of girls who were women.

I think of women who were girls.

I think of ghostly, bare feet on lawn.

I think of garden sprinklers, composure and curbed freedoms.

I think of kidnappings: of girls who grow older and pregnant in front of their captors.

Jamila Johnson-Small, Manou Koreman and Mira Kautto are nevertheless bound in their bounding strides. I imagine the audience salivating as these bodies ripen before me, ready for the picking. Within the echoes of Le Sacre du printemps that Johnson-Small presents, I see the risk of femininity surface. The risk of becoming prey and of venturing beyond the well-manicured lawn into the altogether more messy and carnal years beyond girlhood.

Toes between forever-green grass. The flash of a nipple. A ripe breast and a fertile thigh. The lights have moments of brightening and each dawning makes the work’s beauty brighter.

Each of these presence-filled performers eyes’ glisten with a confidence, a terror, a person looking back, a question, a reckoning, a plea, a dare.

One day, there will be period stains on those whiter than white shorts.

Last Rites by jamie lewis hadley

I see a man. My eyes readjust and I see a white flag. A while later, I see an outstretched arm held high. Later still, I see a fist.

The flag is billowing in the wind and jamie lewis hadley casts an altogether lonely, weatherworn figure. I like how the billowing, misty smoke that surrounds him and us obscures and then clears my sight. Although watching attentively, I only catch glimpses which I enjoy. I wonder about the cell-like plastic sheeting and think of an abattoir. I keep being drawn back to the white flag and its sense of surrendering and implications of cowardice, which clash with the figure’s stationary fight.

Suddenly he sits, knees curled a bit in to his chest, his hands unpicking at something. I see blood seeping onto the white flag. As it is discarded, the flag becomes small, the tiniest piece of him. The remains of a sacrifice lie bleeding. His exit is a little too abrupt and a little too dramatic but afterwards, the audience gather and hover like vultures.

Rite of Spring by PanicLab

Joseph Mercier’s neck is about to snap.

Jordon Lennie’s knees are going to buckle.

Stravinsky’s score makes sure that tragedy looms in, nestles under our skin, and throws a sucker punch.

Why the fuck are people cheering? Why the fuck are people laughing?

My body has a visceral sense of discomfort and horror as I bore my eyes into flesh and hotline my feelings back to that historical night of 29th May 1913. 

“Hands up, chin down”

The work is full of magnetic, erotic forms and attractive, throbbing violence. Joseph and Lennie’s focus and the unfolding nature of the fight combine to foreground the liveness of the performance in a way that is incredibly invested. PanicLab’s re-imagining of Sacre is all at once affronting, painful, nauseous, dark, slick and sharply contemporary.

Our collective breath teeters on the edges of fascination, horror and anticipation while the performers’ breath is being continuously struck and forced out of their lungs.

There are quieter moonlit moments when Joseph and Jordan are taking their time out with coaches on hand. These compositions are when the artifice of the work is most laid bare. I am most aware of a performance but by no means in a bad way. Perhaps this is where my mind automatically has to go to in order to seek refuge from the impact of what these fighting bodies are putting themselves through.

This piece is a work that sustains its potential to blow apart. At its midpoint, there is blood from Joseph’s nose on Lennie’s back, spattered in thick crimson droplets and Joseph’s eye swells in seconds. The stakes keep on rising as Stravinsky keeps thumping.

‘Compelling’ doesn’t come close. ‘Oh my God!’ doesn’t come close. ‘Earth-shattering’ doesn’t come close.

Gillie Kleiman

This is not the first time that a choreography by Jamila Johnson-Small has made me think about teenage angst. I often feel that she and her performers are angry about something, probably about me being there. And never was this so present as here, as the performers alternately resisted connecting their gazes to the audience and offered passive-aggressive model-ly glares to selected individuals.

The three women’s dances filled the astroturf surface around which we sat, their shorts and girlish lacy shirts a Wimbledon white against the fake earth. Their movements, too, seemed to strike a particular balance between the showy and the natural, balletic combinations and moments of vogueish posing softened by the sense that they were only playing at doing it for us – really, it’s for them. It’s funny, the other day I was wondering if Jamila could sing, and I still don’t know, for her and her colleagues’ singing was mainly masked by the recorded music; the singalong is a ritual, not a performance.

I find it a dangerous game, this scorn for an audience, for if I feel I’m damaging an artist by looking at her then I will resist taking this abusive position by turning my thoughts elsewhere. In The Birthday Party, though, it was delicately deployed to make me think and feel about submission, sacrifice, and what I expected of these performers. The dancers toyed with us, touching audience members and getting so close that all there was in the frame was a whirl of leg, but, ultimately, however they might play with seduction, they were not going to be seduced by the attention of the spectators. This is their turf, and they will not be sacrificed.

In jamie lewis hadley’s Last Rites a kind of sacrifice did take place – at least, jamie sacrificed some of his blood. There was something engagingly matter-of-fact about the artist stopping, sitting, and mopping up a bit of blood with a small white cloth, and discarding it there on the floor, haphazardly, for us to see once he’d left the room.

I don’t mean to suggest that the work wasn’t theatrical, for it was: we entered the studio after an interval to find a smoke-filled cube of plastic sheeting – a truly astonishing feat in Chisenhale’s gorgeous but sometimes technically-limited space. (I really love the smell and feel of the material made by smoke-machines; the mix of sourness and mystery is stimulating.) The smoke in the cube was so dense and lit in such a way that nothing within it was visible. As the lights changed and the smoke was pushed away by a dangling fan, jamie’s figure slowly emerged, first an amoebic blob and then a man, standing. Initially I thought he was holding a small flag on a pole, not yet realising that it was his arm into which the cloth, later used as the blood-towel, was stapled. He and we were quiet and calm, the dynamic changing only when he left the cube and the room through the noisy fire doors, removing the fact of himself in favour of the fact of his action still present.

The final work of the evening, the only Rite of Spring, was three times as long as the others and affecting in such a different way that the evening felt a little unbalanced in its favour, but it shared and put new light on some of the threads of its predecessors. This work is a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fight. In the first two rounds the two men grapple, pulling and leaning and resting and holding, all the while Stravinsky’s music making comment on the action. I couldn’t work out whether the dancers were reacting to the music, consciously or subconsciously, or whether the magic of the famous score is that it lends shape to whatever action it accompanies.

I found myself often comparing my experience to the stories of the audience at the premiere of Nijinsky’s original version of the work 100 years ago: there was a similar transgression in the sense that this action, these motions, has never before been seen in this frame, and that the rules are beyond what most of the spectators already know. Like I imagine the audience in Paris did, I tried to learn how to process the action by asking those near me, and eavesdropping on the artists’ collaborators’ pep-talks: the women coaches yelled instructions to the fighters, just as Nijinsky shouted the counts to the dancers from a chair in the wings. I learned what was right and what was wrong.

In these earlier rounds I experienced a kind of physical empathy. I could imagine myself doing this; I wasn’t bothered by the scratches and the sweat. It looked fun. But once the gloves were on, and striking was allowed, everything changed. A strong hook to Joseph’s face caused a bloody nose and the worst black eye I’ve ever seen, even in films or on TV. The lights shifted from one side to another, making a river of blood running down a back suddenly visible, some time after the impact. The images were powerful, but the beautifully-designed shifts between the actual and the aesthetic were alarming.

People laughed and clapped. I was conscious that other people could see me watching through my hands. I felt like they would think I was a wuss, like I was some kind of conservative ballet-goer who just can’t handle it, like I’m afraid of the new. My empathy for the performers disappeared, not because I didn’t want to imagine getting hurt but because I could never punch someone in the face. And I felt like I was. I was being positioned as a fighter, for if I stay I am endorsing this with my presence; I allow myself to be implicated as a bully, hurting the performers by watching them. Though the ethics of this performer-spectator relationship are problematic for me, I could not join those who left. It was a very strong experience.


Commissioned and produced by Clara Giraud

Lighting designs and technical support by Ziggy Jacobs

Introduction by Donald Hutera

Cake by Muxima


The Birthday Party by Jamila Johnson-Small

Choreographed by Jamila Johnson-Small

Performed by Manou Koreman, Mira Kautto and Jamila Johnson-Small

Set design by Kasper Hansen

Music: David Bowie ‘Cat People (Putting Out Fire)’, Cabaret Voltaire ‘Split Second Feeling’


Last Rites by jamie lewis hadley

Special thanks to Edward Saperia, Kevin McLaughlin and Steven McEvoy


Rite of Spring by PanicLab

Conceived by Joseph Mercier

Performed by Jordan Lennie and Joseph Mercier

MM coaching and training by James Duncalf

Scenography by Rachel Good

Associate choreographer: Leila McMillan

Mentor: Kira ‘Demented Fairy Godmother’ O’Reilly

Special thanks to the students and coaches at KO Gym, Anna Zucchelli, Colin Joens, Luc Boulianne and Simona Soukopova

Music: The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky, a recording by Bernard Haitink with the London Philharmonic Orchestra