Festival Dance

Rite of Spring

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Mary Brennan


EVEN before we take our seats, solemn gongs are sounding. A red-robed Buddhist monk is gathering up large, golden Chinese characters and arranging them in carefully structured patterns.

In the middle of this forming circle are ten women: wearing opulent traditional dress and bejewelled headresses, they sit cross-legged in meditative stillness.

Another world is about to open up before us, full of mythic imagery and ancient rituals - tied into the music and the narrative of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring but referencing Buddhist philosophies instead.

In the pagan Russia that inspired Stravinsky, the village men chose the sacrificial virgin. In Yang Liping’s choreography, the women, embracing the belief of re-incarnation, clamour to be the Chosen One whose death will bless the whole community.

When that moment arrives, signalled by the emblematic presence of the White Lion, the delicate and prayerful demeanour of the women is abandoned. Stravinsky’s music erupts into the contemporary score (composed by He Xuntian) and, finery discarded, the women in colourful body-skins whirl and leap in frenetic ecstasies.

An erotic charge surges through the movement – when the eager women surrender themselves, it’s in acts of urgent coupling with the male shaman (a vigorously athletic Da Zhu) who is the White Lion incarnate. Spring will return, the energies of fecund Nature have been liberated, and as the monk calmly restores order to the chaotic stage, the women return in their exquisite formal garb, spreading out gauzy skirts like the plumage of the Peacock, a metaphor for beauty, purity and life and a personal motif in Liping’s own career.

The piece is breathtakingly spectacular throughout. The designs, by Tim Yip (of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame) are visually striking – never more so than in the glowing, fluorescing costumes of the dancers who sway like pliant tendrils of plants, emerging from the darkness.

Those same dancers respond unstintingly to the shifting physicalities of Liping’s demanding, dynamic choreography in a compellingly different Rite of Spring.