Picture this scene on stage: framed by an outsized, futuristic half-moon bowl in the background, a male dancer sneaks up to a woman lying on the floor. He grabs her by the crotch to lift her up, whereupon they change positions and she starts walking across his chest until she can arrange herself into a cross-legged posture on his outstretched hands and feet. It’s a somewhat feral mating act that feels all the more absurd through the painful-to-watch slow-motion of its movements. Odd sound effects like an infant’s hiccup or jungle whispers blend together, supported by the subdued lighting and thin smoke crawling across the stage. Completely undisturbed by this nightmarish scenario, a Buddhist monk in a deep-red robe keeps arranging masses of watermelon-sized Chinese characters into a circle.
This is only a morsel from Chinese choreographer Yang Liping’s visually exuberant reimagination of Igor Stravinsky’s avantgarde ballet Rite of Spring, which played at Edinburgh’s International Festival 22-24 August to a sold-out theatre. Moving the dance’s original setting from pagan Russia to a Sino-Tibetan context, 60-year-old Liping infuses the narratively thin but emotionally complex story with ideas of reincarnation, Chinese art and additional score elements by composer He Xuntian. Supported by the lush costume and stage design of Academy Award winner Tim Yip (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), this show about a maiden chosen as a spring sacrifice gets you visually drunk – it’s only when you leave the theatre to sober up a little that you start questioning it.
Entering through the rabbit hole of Liping’s Rite is an intoxicating experience: the Peacock Contemporary Dance Company move across the stage with spooky, amphibian grace in their rainbow costumes and switch from slow-motion to hysterical frenzy. Sensitively under-lit props and metal leg frames help create the illusion that these girls defy gravity when they hover through the air or bend their bodies into superhuman positions. Equipped with long, fluorescent fake nails for a particularly enigmatic scene, the women group into a line to perform the Thousand-Hand-Bodhisattva Dance (which refers to the Buddhist Goddess of compassion, Guan Yin). The effect is both lulling and bewitching as the glow worm fingers zip through the ultraviolet light.
Apart from the exoticism of this splendour, the collective subservience of the female characters can be hard to watch. There is an eerie sensuality in them lining up to stick their heads into a lion’s jaws or twitch’n’pant as they compete to become The Chosen One under the sharp eye of dancer Da Zhu, a male shaman in a tattered Batman-style cloak. When the panting and rushing comes to an end after an apocalyptic hell-is-loose act, the selected virgin, having danced herself to death, is raised above the shimmering half-moon bowl with golden sequins raining down on her. There is a feeling of quiet victory in this aftermath moment, but what was won in the first place? The Buddhist monk in the background, still arranging Chinese characters until the very end, leaves this question unanswered.
For more on the Edinburgh International Festival click here.