Peacock Contemporary Dance Company: “The Rite of Spring”
Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Scotland, August 23, 2019
It’s the screaming that resonates around the auditorium. The blood curdling, hellish shrieks that chill to the bone. Such shrill cries to the gods to intervene. Ululations to despair and emptiness, entirely bereft of hope, rise up and circle the space. Is there anything more heart-rending, to see someone cry, and feel powerless to intervene? Crying, we enter the world. Screaming, we leave.
Yang Liping’s adaptation of “The Rite Of Spring” with Peacock Contemporary Dance Company is visually spectacular, with set design from Tim Yip who is renowned for his work on cinematic classic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. His gargantuan golden Tibetan bowl eats up much of the space, and occasionally tilts, suggesting a precarious world coming off its axis. Gold Chinese characters which resemble bricks litter the stage, scooped up and collected by a Buddhist monk, burdens on his back as the gods sleep. Indeed, the yin-yang principle of balance and Buddhist philosophy is the main thrust of this piece, a sense of dualism—of immense suffering and great peace.
It is not without its flaws: some of the storytelling is ambivalent to the point of feeling opaque, as with the scenes of selection for sacrifice. Gender politics are problematic here, as the dancers’ expressions and body language give away nothing in these baffling moments. This happens up until the final, more coherent scenes with the chosen maiden (a brilliant, wild and wild-eyed Maya Jilan Dong) dancing herself to anguished, thrashing death after characters stick to her body and seal her fate. The more contemporary choreography from the ensemble at the start, dancing to the gorgeous choppy score by He Xuntian, lacks a little fluidity, but that could just be due to sheer exhaustion.
However, there are some incredible moments too. This is a hugely demanding piece, for any seasoned dancer, after all. At its best, a frenetic, pounding choreography as befits Stravinsky’s original vision, feet stamping and the endlessly howling and panting maidens. The strongest transitions occur at the halfway point, when the Lion (Da Zhu) enters the space and is revealed as the Master, and the original, still skin prickling score from Stravinsky kicks in to violently shaking floorwork. Dancers’ limbs pop out at angles representing the thousand hand and thousand eye Bodhisattva god, protector of all beings. Spring itself is symbolised through fluttering fingers with ultraviolet fingertips, little buds of renewal and rebirth which shine in the dark. The female ensemble ripple like a mighty sea, the maiden is raised up on the Master’s feet before further transitions into agony and ecstasy.
The whole ensemble writhe orgiastically, hair flying and masking their faces as they flail. There are gowns with tails that puff out like peacock feathers and mighty head dresses. At one point, the dancers are grouped together like a (not at all human) centipede, moving as one formation in a creepy mass. Gravity is defied with the strategic use of footholds and wires, reinforcing dreamlike states and the overarching sense of phantasmagoria.
Above all, Liping’s choreography shines when it is enmeshed in the natural world, and the part we all play in it. Undulations and curves, a back arched just so, a foot sticking at an angle, bodies bent in prayer, suffering, or ecstatic lust are elemental and humane. They speak to the complexities of being human, the awareness of mortality, hurt and all ephemeral things. But please, no more screaming. I cannot bear the screaming. I just want to reach out and rescue Dong, to comfort her and reassure her that the pain and sadness cannot last forever, that she will be purified, such is the magnetism of her performance. And so it comes to pass. She is cleansed of suffering and sprinkled with golden dust: she stands finally free, flowing, and feather-light.
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