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Yang Liping's adaptation of The Rite of Spring is being presented by Luminato in Toronto.

Courtesy of A Peacock Contemporary Dance Company

  • The Rite of Spring
  • Choreographed by Yang Liping
  • Composed by Igor Stravinsky, Xuntian He
  • Presented by Luminato

Since Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring allegedly incited riots in 1913, there have been dozens of dance interpretations of Stravinsky’s jarring and dramatic orchestral work. Chinese choreographer Yang Liping’s adaptation, presented by Luminato and originally co-produced by Sadler’s Wells, is the first significant effort to reimagine the work using ancient Tibetan and Buddhist themes. The result is a striking, visceral production that presents a complex consideration of fertility, sexuality and violence. There’s lots to unpack about the empowerment versus the subjugation of women within these rituals, even if the takeaway is a little unclear.

Unique to Liping’s vision is the inclusion of a Buddhist trajectory from incantation to sacrifice to reincarnation. The work begins with the cast of 15 female dancers sitting on stage in meditative stillness. A vast molten half-sphere, like a planet sliced in two, dips and transforms behind them. Shivering fingers become a recurring motif, as the women quietly assume synchronized poses. It isn’t until a huge Chinese Lion appears, and a nearly naked man emerges from underneath him, that the work becomes overtly sexual.

Like German choreographer Pina Bausch’s famously violent version, this Rite uses the device of an isolated woman in red. In Liping’s rendering, she is less shunned and more chosen. The red woman’s sexuality is awoken through a duet with the undressed man, who transforms into something of a ceremonial master. I rarely find myself startled by choreography, but the explicitness of the sexual content surprised me – I mean “surprise” in the purest, value-free sense of the word and not because I came in with any preconceived assumptions or expectations of what an East Asian interpretation would look like. Rather, it was the magnified rendering of the sexual material that surprised me on its own terms – a surprise that certainly sharpened my engagement. Once the red woman succumbs to the ceremonial master’s pursuit, her movement seems generated by her genital area. She dips backward, lifting herself from her pelvis, where the man rests his head. He proceeds to place his hands between her legs, right against her groin, making complex, flower-like shapes that suggest he’s performing an elaborate stimulation.

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The choreography in Rite of Spring is explicity sexual.

Courtesy of A Peacock Contemporary Dance Company

The pelvic-led movement is then reprised by the rest of the cast, who slink their bodies into the same backward undulation, lifting noticeably from the groin. The impression brought to mind the famous feminist mantra of modern dance luminary Martha Graham, who exhorted her largely female company to “move from the vagina.” But the impulse is complicated here by the fact that the women seem in thrall to the ceremonial man, who appears to push and repel their bodies with magnetic pressure. When the women reappear onstage with their hair loose, in a heightened emotional state, their vaginal-centred movement brings to mind Freud’s less feminist ideas of hysteria and sexual repression.

As the women thrash their bodies violently across the stage, the ambiguity between autonomy and subjugation becomes increasingly interesting – and perplexing. At this point, Stravinsky’s music infuses the traditional Tibetan score and the women perform a series of mechanical zombie-like moves, as though stuck inside a trance. They’re riveting to watch here, assuming a mien that feels both rapt and transcendental. Selecting the sacrificial woman unfolds like a desperate competition. The stage is covered in foamy Chinese characters that the women lift to their bodies to test whether the symbol, quite literally, sticks. One by one, they are distraught to find the golden pieces falling to the ground. When the red woman undergoes the challenge, she seems exultant when the character immediately adheres to her chest. The ceremonial man performs another proprietorial and sexual ritual on her body before she’s devoured by the lion. The Rite ends with her body reincarnated, floating above the stage on wires.

I spent a good portion of the 70-minute piece vacillating in my interpretation. Does Liping mean to criticize the violence she depicts or is this an evocation – even glorification – of a ceremony that reconfigures what sex, submission and tradition mean? The debate is interesting, if unresolved.

The Rite of Spring, presented by Luminato, continues at the MacMillan Theatre until June 22.

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