Rite of Spring
- Lucy Ribchester
- 25 August 2019
Stravinsky's radical ballet is a spiritual feast for the senses in this production from visionary choreographer Yang Liping
When Stravinsky's Rite of Spring first premiered in 1913, performed by the Ballets Russes, legend tells there were boos. A riot erupted; bourgeois Paris audiences couldn't handle the radical assault of the Russian composer's asymmetrical rhythms, or was it Nijinsky's avant garde choreography that shocked them?
Thankfully there are no jeers or catcalls at Yang Liping's production, performed by her Peacock Contemporary Dance Company. But the brash, blinding, glory of Liping's vision makes the piece feel every bit as arresting as you imagine it would have been in 1913.
Liping has transported the pagan tale – where in the original a maiden is chosen from her village to sacrifice herself – into a world inspired by Tibetan mythologies. She invokes a pantheon of deities, brought to life in Tim Yip's gorgeous costumes – from a troupe of crowned Tara goddesses to a lion-headed priest, imagined in enormous, shaggy-maned puppet form. The action is cupped by Yip's giant half of a Tibetan bowl, which sometimes blazes red, or swims blue, or tilts upwards like an inverted sun. Stravinsky's score forms the middle section of the work (Sacrifice) while the opening (Incantation) and epilogue (Renewal) are He Xuntian's compositions; gongs and flutes melting into somnambulant undercurrents.
But the sumptuous design and music are only part of Liping's vision and her choreography more than matches them for bravura. Her ensemble ripples their fingers and stretches their arms in preternaturally perfect unison. At one point her dancers' legs are confined in a long communal ankle-brace, allowing them to undulate with a depth and velocity that is mesmerising. Each stamp or leap is struck with a precision that is nevertheless wild – and speaks of forces with powers you wouldn't want to disturb.
Dancer Da Zhu appears in black rags that soar behind him like wings, or as a skeletal god, the back of his head masked with a skull's face, which he puppets to macabre effect. In Liping's retelling a woman is not chosen but elects herself for the sacrifice, and she dances herself to death in an ecstasy that's shamanic in potency.
It's a production so audacious, so packed in colour, symbolism, noise, and intensity that you get the sense that if any one component didn't come off, it wouldn't work. But they all do, and it's awe-inspiring.
Reviewed at Edinburgh Festival Theatre.