Yang Liping’s Rite of Spring is as much an education in Eastern aesthetics, religion and philosophy as it is a performance work. While it’s a visual feast, this expanded interpretation has many layers of meaning to digest that aren’t necessarily immediately apparent to Western audiences. Filtering its symbolism, staging and style through occidental dance sensibilities without that knowledge can limit appreciation of Yang’s choreography and complex storytelling.

Yang Liping’s Rite of Spring. Photograph © Justin Nicholas

My frustration at only finding general descriptions of the work online beforehand was magnified when I collected a second program on exiting the theatre that provided a detailed statement of Yang’s vision. By explaining the deeper purpose of the work’s imagery and composition, the characters and colours, this guidebook enhanced my understanding, but knowing this in advance would have enriched how I experienced the performance, so it’s a shame it hasn’t been uploaded. (It requires more than a skim to absorb, and given the performers are onstage when the audience enter the auditorium if you want the benefit I’d suggest arriving early to read it while outside.)

Drawing inspiration from both Chinese and Tibetan beliefs and symbols, Yang has bookended Stravinksy’s titular score with a preface, Incantation, and a coda, Renewal, set to commissioned compositions by Xuntian He. The mood generated by this Tibetan-influenced music complements the famously primal and visceral tour de force, which remains The Sacrifice. In this Buddhist retelling, however, it is an enlightened woman who martyrs herself for the betterment of all people, and is reincarnated.

Yang Liping’s Rite of Spring. Photograph © Justin Nicholas

The choreographer’s movement style is eclectic and idiosyncratic, utilising what we identify as Chinese performance dynamics blending traditional dance with acrobatic and martial arts elements, alongside a raw expressionism. Moments of stillness, meditation and refinement contrast with menacing intensity, explosive athleticism and exhausting relentless repetition. At times the movement’s only accompaniment is exhalations of breath and the sound of footsteps.

Evocative passages shift from elegantly flowing arms and hands to concentrated gestures focusing on spider and spirit fingers. Ripples of long, luminous, green fingernails suggest emergent blades of grass, while darting heads and torsos conjure flitting birds. Yang uses canon to spectacular effect in a line down the middle of the stage. The dancers’ lower legs are held in brackets that allow them to execute full body waves diving forward then arching back up, and also in backbends curving to the floor, as the sinewy Priest representing desire walks slowly and deliberately between them. His scant g-string covering is intentionally at odds with the visual extravagance of the other costumes and design overseen by Oscar-winner Tim Yip. There are a huge jewel-eyed lion’s head, ornate headdresses and chest-plates, and unitards and panelled-skirts painted in a spectrum of colours.

Yang Liping’s Rite of Spring. Photograph © Justin Nicholas

Stacks of script characters that a Lama is constantly arranging on the stage form a sacrificial altar, and a semi-circular bowl backdrop dramatically takes on variety of vivid lighting states, at one point appearing like the lip of a volcano. As you might expect from the man who created the design for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, there is also some gorgeous wire-work depicting a floating female figure in Nirvana. Her showering in Buddha’s golden light is another glorious image.

While this revolutionary work can be enjoyed at face value, familiarity with its concepts will enable audiences to fully appreciate its depth and scope. Knowing that it is also 20 minutes longer than advertised will also help, because it was around 40 minutes before Rite’s familiar notes began, making the first section seem a little long.

One other observation that I hope the festival will address after many years: it’s disappointing to see banks of empty front centre seats on an opening night, presumably unclaimed by complimentary ticket holders. The artists deserve to look out on a full house.

Yang Liping’s Rite of Spring is at the Playhouse, QPAC, as part of the Brisbane Festival until 28 September