Stravinsky’s canonical pagan tale is reimagined as a gorgeous, gripping nightmare.
We tend to view death as the end of life. Yet that is not entirely true. Rather, death is an integral part of life itself—unfolding around us, before us, after us, and yes, ultimately, to ourselves: enveloping the self into the great unknown darkness that lays beyond.
The cyclical nature and precarious balance between life and death have always been at the centre of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. When it was first performed in 1913, it made audiences so uncomfortable—with its fearless atonality and truly disruptive sense of harmony—that it caused what might be the only riot in the history of classical music.
Now, over 100 years later, the composition itself remains hellish, startling, and jarring as ever. Of course, history has proven Stravinsky’s score an utter masterstroke likely to cause standing ovations as opposed to riots.
Consequently, the challenge of any contemporary adaptation becomes this: How can one retain the visceral shock of the original?
For Yang Liping Contemporary Dance, the answer lies in a breathtaking study of sex, death, and ritual. It takes just over an hour for this Melbourne International Arts Festival highlight to unfold, radically retelling Stravinsky’s narrative of paganism and rebirth through the lens of Asian spiritual philosophies, iconography, and aesthetics.
The result? An otherworldly dreamscape that unfurls into a gripping nightmare that latches on to your psyche and refuses to let go.
The show opens with a lone Monk, slowly stacking hundreds of golden Chinese characters––silently and solemnly––across the stage. His focus is resolute; unable or unwilling to notice the atrocities and sacrifices happening around him.
From there, the choreography flickers between darkness and light. We see fluorescent green fingernails transform into birds of paradise and meditative young women fall foul to the desires of their omnipresent abuser. We see dragon gods consume their prey whole and the madness that ensues—brought to life in twitching, maddening bursts of movement. It’s enrapturing to witness.
The score alternates between Stravinsky’s original and new additions that feel inspired by New Age ambient as much as they are Tibetan throat singing. It’s a hypnotic mix and does a worthy job of modernising the production while staying true to the original.
At this point in the cultural epoch, we seem to be reaching a wider collective understanding of how whitewashed our relationship to classical music is. Yang Liping’s adaptation of this certified classic from the ‘Western Canon’ proves how powerful re-appropriation can be when filtered through a fresh cultural lens. There’s a powerful sense of vitality when it’s done right. Rite of Spring executes it with a cogent boldness of vision that’s rarely seen on stage.
Rite of Spring ran as part of Melbourne International Arts Festival.