Rite of Spring Review by DJ Pearce

****.5 stars

Imagery for Rite of Spring adorns many of the promotional materials for the 2019 Melbourne International Arts Festival, and with good reason. The eye-catching visuals and sumptuous costumes are photogenic and dramatic, the production itself a perfect metaphor for the festival – inspiration drawn like colours a global palette to create brushstrokes of unexpected and dynamic interplays of contemporary dance and theatre, puppetry and spectacle.

The work by the distinguished director and choreographer Yang Liping retells in part the story of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, a ballet and orchestral work from 1913. Set in three distinct musical sections, a selection of episodes from the original orchestral work are nestled between a meditative prologue and epilogue of new music by composer He Xuntian. While both enable deep expression and are complementary, the transition between the more contemporary music production and the familiar classic momentarily jarred. However, the new composition was still able to set a unique canvas and grounding for the interpretation to flourish, recalling Stravinsky’s serial harmonies while adding a distinctive Eastern aesthetic.

Drawing perspectives not just from aesthetic, but also Asian spiritual philosophies and symbolism, the audience is taken on a journey through earth, heaven and hell. Navigating this mythological and chaotic time and space, known as Hongmeng, we encounter fantastical and menacing creatures and entities. Some central characters emerge from the ensemble, like the sage preparing to be sacrificed and the twin figures embodying Yin-yang, and while there’s no easy specificity of story – more generally a communication of concepts and ideas – there is still a concrete line of action. To add interest, intrigue and distraction and to draw the audience into the world even before the house lights went down, was the charming hermit character of Lama, whose ponderous and mundane movements added both a counterpoint and an almost comic relief to the melodrama of the main action.

Resting among a spectacular and visually arresting setting of a huge, reflective, bowl and thousands of soft bricks of a mantra of repeating Chinese characters, the ensemble’s movements echoed these musical changes, beginning slow, precise and deliberate. Even in these slower moments, the athleticism and control required by the subtlety of movement was awe-inspiring. The slower pacing of the opening sections allowed for context to be unravelled, allowing for the easier understanding of the later sections filled with dramatic and chaotic movement. The passion and energy on display in these sections equally matched the intensity of the slower dynamic.

Yang Liping drew from a kaleidoscope of movement types across different disciplines of dance, notably including a thousand-hand bodhisattva, brought to contemporary light through an ingenious use of luminescent hand-dress and blacklight. Viewers with a deeper understanding of the underlying philosophies may have been able to read additional layers of meaning into the new presentation, but for others, the visual spectacle alone was sublime. Other moments were also enhanced by a stunning lighting design, elongating the dimensions of the stage to allow for jaw-dropping reveals, or utilising silhouette to create uniformity and unification of body shapes into single impressions.

While some of the more esoteric layers of the interpretation may be lost on those not familiar with the Buddhist philosophies, the addition of supplementary material within the programme assisted with deeper understanding, whether read before or after the performance. No matter the level of engagement with the underlying concepts, the beauty and mastery on display was a joy to behold. Leaving a lasting impression of a spectacle with depth, Rite of Spring is a heavenly new interpretation of a modern classic.

Rite of Spring is playing 3-6 October at the State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival.