Yang Liping brings the cycle of life, death and rebirth to the Rite of Spring

In May, Yang Liping brings her Tibetan Buddhist-inspired Rite of Spring to London’s Sadler’s Wells, ahead of a visit to the Edinburgh International Festival in August.
David Mead recently talked to the Chinese choreographer about the work and combining traditional culture and contemporary dance.

Yang Liping (杨丽萍) is one of China’s most iconic dancers. Despite having no formal training, she won nationwide fame for her performance in her own elegant and dreamlike Spirit of the Peacock (雀之靈) in 1986. Yet, she remained little known abroad until she turned to a more contemporary aesthetic with Under Siege (十面埋伏), which received its European premiere at Sadler’s Wells in 2016.

Now, for her second work for her Peacock Contemporary Dance Company (孔雀舞團), she has turned her attention to Rite of Spring (春之祭). Tackling something known so well was a big challenge, she concedes, but she says it seemed the right time as she seeks to refine her artistic voice and become better known internationally.

Yang LipingPhoto courtesy Yang Liping
Yang Liping
Photo courtesy Yang Liping

Stravinsky’s scenario and score may have been choreographed to countless times and in countless different ways but Yang explains that it has been little done in China. “There was a ballet production and a contemporary production that didn’t do too many shows. Not many oriental artists have taken on the challenge.”

Most versions of Rite of Spring depict a young girl who is chosen as a sacrificial victim as part of rituals celebrating the advent of spring. Influenced by Tibetan and Chinese symbols of nature as well as beliefs in duty, the cyclicity of life and death, and the inevitability of rebirth, Yang comes at it from a different perspective.

Thematically, the work is in three parts: Incantation, Sacrifice and Reincarnation. At its heart is a woman who volunteers for death in the knowledge that she will be reborn. Her story is one of a journey from fear and doubt to the empowerment she finds in her sacrifice.

Yang Liping's Rite of SpringPhoto Li Yijan
Yang Liping’s Rite of Spring
Photo Li Yijan

It’s an approach that will reach out and connect with both Chinese and non-Chinese audiences, Yang believes. There is also a sense of this reflecting her own career, being ‘reborn’ in a more modern aesthetic that mixes contemporary and traditional dance and ideas, she agrees.

“The spirit is very different. There is no fear in being selected. In fact, the girls fight for the position,” she explains. “The whole work is a reflection of the real world; not some totally abstract creation. The stage is a reflection of Buddhist people’s, Tibetan people’s especially, approach to life. They do a lot of training, a lot of praying. It can take them years to march to Lhasa to see the temple. So, the whole exercise of going through life is a sort of training for themselves to be able to reach that level of being able to offer oneself to death.”

A Chinese poster for Yang Liping's Rite of Spring
A Chinese poster for Yang Liping’s Rite of Spring

As in Under Siege, elements from traditional culture are embedded firmly in Rite of Spring. The dance itself is inspired by daily life, religion and Yunnan traditional dances, says Yang. “A lot of the choreography of the hands actually comes from prayer. Everything has some sort of meaning.” Some choreography from her famous Spirit of the Peacock has also been designed into the work.

The sage is represented by an important symbol of Tibetan culture the White Lion. His purpose is to accept the woman’s sacrifice, and with the human community prepare the ritual that will lead to her death and possibly a sky burial.

“Everywhere in the world, the lion is a representation of power, authority and strength. In Tibet, it is a holy animal that represents the highest level of achievement in the practice of that form of Buddhism. For example, there is a thing called the ‘lion’s roar’, the ‘lion’s scream’, a particular exercise in the practice. Also, you have the idea of people putting their heads into the lion’s mouth. That’s a very specific religious practice in Tibet. They go to a lion sculpture to do it. And the White Lion makes for a very strong contrast between female power and the male power and authority, as in real life.”

The other identifiable character is a Tibetan monk. Following tradition, he creates a mandala from coloured sand, which is destroyed upon completion. Yang explains that this process reflects the practice of life and death and symbolises the Buddhist belief in the transitory nature of material life. “Build and destroy. Nothing will last for ever, no matter how much strength you put into it. Even the strongest building can be destroyed in one second. That is a very important part of the essence of Buddhism.”

Yang Liping's Rite of SpringPhoto Li Yijan
Yang Liping’s Rite of Spring
Photo Li Yijan

Musically, Yang’s Rite of Spring sees the well-known Stravinsky score sandwiched between new music, inspired by traditional sounds, also from Tibet. That’s out of necessity as much as anything, she says. “I wanted this to be a full evening show. The Stravinsky is only 35 minutes, so we had to find something else too.”

It is difficult to bring such elements from traditional dance and culture into contemporary dance, says Yang. “He Xuntian (何訓田) is a modern composer and trying to tie his music and the Stravinsky together has been very challenging. It’s always been very difficult to use traditional and contemporary creativities to create a synergetic final work. But they fact they sometimes work against each other can increase the artistic strength.

For Rite of Spring, Yang again turned to designer Tim Yip. “We have a lot in common. Tim also wants to show traditional art but with an international eye; in an international way.

Bringing traditional culture and contemporary art together is important for Yang. “The problem often with contemporary dance is that the form, the choreography, is modern but with no meaning behind it. Chinese contemporary dance especially tends to have Western influences in it but no Chinese cultural meaning. What I want to do is not just dance in a contemporary way, but put traditional culture and traditional art in the movement to make it much more solid; more relevant. That is how I think contemporary dance should be.”

Yang Liping's Rite of SpringPhoto Li Yijan
Yang Liping’s Rite of Spring
Photo Li Yijan

Traditional arts in China are suffering in the onslaught of the modern world, as in many places, even though the government puts a lot of money and effort towards preserving it, she says.” We are now in the world of the internet, of Netflix, of superheroes. The problem is, like in many other things, people, and young people especially, can’t stand watching traditional art in the traditional way anymore.”

That’s how Under Siege started, Yang continues. “For example, Qiu Jirong (裘继戎), the singer and narrator, almost gave up Peking Opera, even though he’s a third-generation artist in this traditional art. Even his friends didn’t want to watch him anymore. That’s how he came to contemporary dance. But by mixing Peking Opera with contemporary dance, it draws the young generation. The young people watch traditional art again, albeit in new ways.”

Rite of Spring promises to be an assault on all the senses with so much to take away. Specifically, though, Yang would like the audience to remember the dancers and their “very Chinese way of moving; and my whole approach to contemporary dance with its influences of culture, religion and everyday life.” As she once said, “Dance is a kind of spirit and a kind of communication. Actually, I can use dance to express beauty better than words.”

And after Rite of Spring, what comes next for Yang Liping? “Under Siege was very male-oriented. Rite of Spring shows the strength of the female. Looking ahead, I have a lot of thoughts, but let’s get this one done first!” she said with a smile.

Yang Liping’s Rite of Spring is at Sadler’s Wells from May 9-11. Visit www.sadlerswells.com for details and tickets.

It is at the Edinburgh International Festival from August 22-24, 2019. General booking opens on April 6 via www.eif.co.uk.