Photo – Yijian Li
For the entire 75 minutes of Chinese choreographer Yang Liping’s Rite of Spring, a young monk stacks, piles and shuffles gold Chinese characters around the stage. His task is so focused and unrelenting that even in the curtain call he doesn’t notice when Liping lays her opening night flower bouquet at his feet.
All this carefully orchestrated activity is just one element in a sprawling epic of a production that marries Tibetan Buddhist influences with contemporary and Chinese dance for a Rite of Spring that is heavy on design and layered with imagery. It is visually overwhelming at times, although that doesn’t always translate to a visceral experience.
Liping imbues symbolism into micro-activities like subtle finger gestures overlaying thrashing choreography. The macro view is equally busy, as she extends this Rite of Spring into a reincarnation section, sustained in a prolonged final image of slowly falling gold dust.
Tim Yip (of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame) populates the design and costumes with rich colours, formal head pieces (and later reams of wild, long hair that fashions a crucial component of frenzied choreography). An enormous bowl-like sculpture carves out the back wall into a mountainous, infinite space. Other literal representations, like a massive puppet of a White Lion, directly reflect Tibetan culture and become (albeit tenuous) threads in an unwieldy narrative.
Liping is certainly not the first and won’t be the last artist to interpret Stravinsky’s now iconic, once revolutionary score (from 1913). She may, though, be the only one who has bookended it with electronica-infused Tibetan gongs and sounds (composed by Xuntian He) that boom from speakers on the sides of stage. This incongruous coupling is tricky and somewhat jarring, but given the huge mix of components, it all becomes part of the sprawling canvas.
Stravinsky’s music creeps in once chaos has been established – after the female lead (Maya Jilian Dong) has danced a contortion-filled, hyper-sexualized dance with nearly naked, sinewy Da Zhou (materializing out of the oversized lion puppet). The chorus of women, with feet and ankles braced on a frame, fashion a line of undulating back bends and spiralling arms, their fingernails welding long fluorescent nails that collectively shape kaleidoscopic geometries. Striking vignettes like this one propel the entire production, creating parts that are stronger than the whole.
Riding the success wave of Liping’s early piece Under Siege (also presented by Melbourne Festival), Rites of Spring premiered at Sadler’s Wells earlier this year and is in the midst of an international tour. Its sweeping opulence and cultural currency ticks the boxes for an international arts festival headline.
It’s a complicated, fussy work, visually powerful and conceptually cumbersome. While it does not fully hold together, Rite of Spring’s design and spectacle make for a unique experience if viewers are happy to just let it all wash over them and not worry about connecting all the dots.
2019 Melbourne International Arts Festival
Rite of Spring
Yang Liping Contemporary Dance
Choreographer Yang Liping
Venue: State Theatre | Arts Centre Melbourne VIC
Dates: 3 – 6 October 2019
Tickets: $49 - $119