A daring Eastern vision of death and rebirth: Yang Liping’s Rite of Spring

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
August 24, 2019

Róisín O’Brien

Yang Liping’s (杨丽萍) Rite of Spring (春之祭) for her Peacock Contemporary Dance Company (孔雀舞團) is a luscious, primordial extravagance. Beautifully designed by Tim Yip, with a haunting new score from He Xuntian (何訓田) that sits around Stravinsky’s modernist piece, Yang’s production doesn’t shy away from the brutality in rebirth.

The piece opens in situ, a Lama carefully moving about the scattered bricks in the shapes of Chinese characters that lay strewn across the stage. He continues to do this for the rest of the performance, regardless of pace.

As in Bausch’s creative answer to Stravinsky, the cast is a score of women and one priest who demands a sacrifice. The women begin clad in painfully intricate and colourful costumes, their fragile gold head dresses sitting on top immaculately painted faces. They morph into more free-wheeling creatures later on, their garments loose and their hair unbound in rough strands around their face.

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

The priest, dancer Da Zhu (Zhu Fengwei, 朱鳳偉), is a stern, uncompromising presence that prowls the stage searching for the chosen one. He is followed by a weaving lion, that hovers unnervingly higher than the dancers on stage.

In He’s new score, we are in an abstract world of babbling brooks, religious chants and pumping rhythms. It’s atmospheric and evocative, and ties neatly with the tableaus of movement that transitions from religious orders to undulating creatures with green tipped fingers.

And yet, that opening call of Stravinsky is hard to resist, the dancers preening and searching for that new day, that birdsong. As the thunderous rolls commence, the women mutate into a frenzy that is thrilling, a sensual dance of groins thrusting forward and out.

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

The dance to the death is always the climax. Yang chooses to have dancer Dong Jilan (董繼蘭) continue frantically after the bombastic score has finished. The lion follows her, inescapably. It’s a sharp, jumped sacrifice, a glaring red light flashing before cutting to black. The piece could end here, but Yang chooses to show a positive rebirth, the dancers moving through golden light and dust.

The dance ends, but the piece’s ethos continues even into the bow, the dancers remaining in their incarnations. The Lama continues to stack his signs, a constancy of tradition and belief forming the backdrop to the departing audience.

A daring vision with sumptuous design, that goes full throttle in portraying the might of destruction and the light in regeneration.

For more on this Rite of Spring, read David Mead’s interview with Yang Liping.