Rite of Spring
Sadler’s Wells Theatre
Reviewed – 9th May 2019
“the glorious, stylised sketches of now alien rituals keep the audience spellbound”
As we enter to the sound of chanting, a single red-robed monk moves carved Chinese characters from a human-sized heap into flat lines around the stage. Behind him, ten dancers sit cross-legged. They wear richly-coloured bodysuits and gold headdresses dripping with jewels. A gong strikes sonorously. The scene is arresting. It’s going to be a spectacular night.
Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring caused a scandal when it was first performed in Paris in 1913. While the choreography of the original dance has been lost, one can imagine that if it was anything like director and choreographer Yang Liping’s creation, indeed it might raise eyebrows. Exploring pagan springtime rituals, including human sacrifice, invariably calls for some powerful iconography, and Liping’s handling is no exception. We’re treated to sometimes graphic moments of sexuality, fertility, fecundity and rebirth.
As the performance begins the statuesque godlike figures who had remained stock-still as the auditorium filled begin to move, seeming to crackle and flex with the arrival of spring. Dancers genuflect towards the light as if awakening from sleep. Later, a single dancer, nymph-like, is brought to awakening by a huge Chinese dragon-style shaman. The athleticism on display is remarkable.
These opening scenes also give us an early introduction to the astonishing affordance of this visual design (no surprise, given it comes courtesy of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s Tim Yip) as the enormous convex disc backing onto the stage rises and falls. This fantastic piece of engineering and design, thanks to exemplary lighting (Fabiana Piccioli) and clever use of projections (Tobias Gremmler), variously calls to mind a pool, a cloud, the red sun of the Chinese flag and a Tibetan singing bowl. It’s hypnotic.
And lighting is artful throughout. A darkened but neon-lit scene is especially entrancing, as fluid group movement and fluorescent costumes variously transform the dancers into flowers, fields of grass and frenzied dryads. Pagan wildness is shot through the piece, and the solitary monk, never leaving the stage, continues to arrange and rearrange the piles of golden Chinese characters as if seeking to restore order. His work is smashed in scenes of wild dancing, but as we leave the auditorium he remains, silently arranging the characters, and the closing scene offers a promise of peace as our human sacrifice is reborn. This moment is truly a thing of beauty, as the dancer flows mercurially around the disc. Inspired staging ensures that she is as luminous as a Pepper’s ghost before she descends into a final serene meditation.
The astonishing staging and performances on display here ensure that this production is spectacle as much as it is dance, and the glorious, stylised sketches of now alien rituals keep the audience spellbound.
Yang Liping’s Rite of Spring will be touring to Edinburgh International Festival this summer, 22-24 August 2019.
Reviewed by Abi Davies
Photography by Li Yijan
Rite of Spring
Sadler’s Wells Theatre until 11th May
Previously reviewed at this venue: