Rite of Spring

Director and choreographer Yang Liping, music Igor Stravinsky and Xuntian He
Sadler's Wells

Rites of Spring come not as single spies but in battalions (apologies to Shakespeare): in 1962 Kenneth MacMillan presented an Aboriginal inflected version with design by Australian artist Sidney Nolan; Michael Keegan-Dolan was inspired in 2009; Jeanguy Saintus made his UK debut with a version for Phoenix Dance Theatre this year; and there’s many more… But it’s the Pina Bausch version, recently performed by English National Ballet, which resonates most viscerally.

And it seems that Pina Bausch has influenced Yang Liping’s epic Chinese Buddhist take on Stravinsky’s originally daring and controversial score: she calls it “a series of codes that Stravinsky leaves for future generations of dancers” (programme notes David Jays). Interpret that as you will.

But she doesn't leave well alone: mixing contemporary dance with traditional Yunnan folk elements, she also has Xuntian He compose an additional score, inspired by Tibetan music, to open and close—to bookend—her dramatic eye-boggling show which premièred in Shanghai October 2018. Seventy minutes no interval (Stravinsky’s score is thirty-five minutes) this is an arena show shoehorned into Sadler’s Wells compact space.

Buddhist spiritual philosophy of rebirth and reincarnation, and Asian mythology and aesthetic come together in a dynamic presentation. The dancers move from sustained stillness to incredibly lithe acrobatics. And all the while, a lone Buddhist monk toils shifting a mountain of golden bricks in the shape of Chinese characters, carrying them across the stage, through the auditorium, along the front stalls, patient, inscrutable, layering the stage, rearranging the jigsaw of life.

If only one knew what they said, for these are of some import: the girls roll in them, scatter them, load them on their backs, thread them on their plaits, have them deliberately stuck to their bodies, hold them up for us to read. Virtues and vices perhaps, or aphorisms: the monk could be a figure out of a Beckett play.

Twelve goddesses sit against a molten golden sky in the shape of a Tibetan bowl, a crucible from which descends a god, a demon god, a demanding god, a lion-headed Chinese Moloch. The girls come to life slowly, rise in unison, weave a story with their pliant arms and bodies, each face masked by a significant character.

Monster head discarded, the god now in human form, a muscular young warrior type in loincloth, comes forth and sits on the prostrate body of a girl in red: is he bringing her to life, giving birth to her, or mating with her? An intense, erotic coupling follows: she walks on his chest, slides between his legs, sits in lotus position on his raised feet as if on a pedestal. Amazing!

The monk toils with his burden—are these souls he is transporting?—as the virile god tightrope walks amongst the green-fingered, sway-backed row of girls, undulating fronds and shoots of grass. Tim Yip’s visual design, its special effects matching the cinematic soundscape, Fabiana Piccioli’s phosphorescent lighting and Tobias Gremmler’s projection design play with the show’s supernatural elements and our perceptions.

Al last Stravinsky kicks in—recorded sound, not live—and the orgiastic antics begin. Long loose hair, loose limbs, the girls give way to fear and emotion, whilst the young god, in ghostly black, observes from his pestle and mortar bowl. The girls seem to offer themselves willingly, making a sacrifice for the sake of life’s renewal and cycle according to programme notes, lining up to put their heads into the Moloch’s maw and pass through his legs.

Wild abandon and serenity sit side by side. The chosen one is garnished with symbols, which she tries to shake off. Is she willing? She shakes and shakes but he swallows her whole. And that’s the end, surely? Stravinsky’s music ends. But no, it’s a false ending. On we go. The monk sits in silent prayer, chants. Smoke, loud singing, melodramatic lighting, and the maiden, now purified spirit, is lifted into the bowl and up into the sky.

End? No. Girls in peacock skirts and splendid headdresses parade and form a pretty tableau. Referencing her most famous dance work, Spirit of the Peacock, inspired by the traditional peacock folk dancing of her youth—Yang Liping is known as the “Peacock Princess” in China—it seems her Chosen One is reincarnated as a peacock. The monk continues his never-ending work.

A unique experience—the supple dancers are astonishing, and the smoke and mirrors (and doubling) magic ingenious—the show is sold out (Yang Liping’s spectacular 2016 work Under Siege no doubt garnered fans), but you can catch it at the Edinburgh International Festival this summer.

PS There’s another Asian Rite of Spring to come this month, at The Place, from Seeta Patel. Give me surfeit of it (another apology to Shakespeare), but with a live orchestra next time.

Reviewer: Vera Liber