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Wear­ing a tra­di­tional red Chi­nese dress but topped with a base­ball cap, Yang Lip­ing looks like the past and present in one body. Each time her hands go near her face, you fear the im­pos­si­bly long fin­ger­nails will take an eye out. “Don’t worry,” she says, “I’ve been wear­ing them a long time.”

Decades, in fact, ever since Yang be­came known across her na­tive China for per­form­ing the Dai pea­cock dance. So pop­u­lar was it, that she named her com­pany af­ter it – Pea­cock Con­tem­po­rary Dance – be­cause even though Yang’s style is mod­ern, the in­spi­ra­tion for ev­ery­thing she cre­ates lies in her her­itage.

Yang is in Lon­don for the UK pre­miere of Rite of Spring which, much like her out­fit, is a com­ing to­gether of old and new. Her pre­vi­ous pro­duc­tion, Un­der Siege, was a big hit at Sadler’s Wells and she’s hop­ing to re­peat that suc­cess. The strains of Stravin­sky’s iconic score can be heard from the nearby stage, but sit­ting in her dress­ing room, 60-year-old Yang isn’t wear­ing her cos­tume to per­form. The pun­ish­ing chore­og­ra­phy of her lat­est work would chal­lenge even a young body – the dress and nails are for a photo-shoot, and the cur­tain call later that evening.

Rite of Spring is the third part­ner­ship be­tween Yang and de­signer Tim Yip – an ac­claimed artist best known for his Os­car­win­ning work on the 2000 film Crouch­ing Tiger, Hid­den Dragon. To­gether, they’ve ex­plored no­tions of life, re­birth and the nat­u­ral world in their home­land and nearby Ti­bet.

“There are many ver­sions of Rite of Spring and it has a long his­tory,” says Yang.

“But my ver­sion came from my per­sonal life. I grew up in Yun­nan Prov­ince in China, and al­though Rite of Spring is from Rus­sia, we have a very sim­i­lar thing where I come from.

“When spring ar­rives, there is a cer­e­mony for the har­vest, and in my vil­lage we cel­e­brated ev­ery­thing with a dance.”

It was dur­ing those early days in the vil­lage that Yang dis­cov­ered she had an ap­ti­tude for move­ment. Join­ing a nearby com­pany aged

11, where young chil­dren could dance and be ed­u­cated at the same time, she be­gan ex­per­i­ment­ing not just with per­for­mance, but chore­og­ra­phy.

“My back­ground is quite dif­fer­ent from most other dancers, be­cause I’ve never re­ceived any of­fi­cial ed­u­ca­tion in dance,” says Yang. “I danced as a child in my vil­lage, where we were in­spired by ev­ery­thing sur­round­ing us – our bod­ies, the trees. We would look around us and think ‘if a flower is like this, I’ll try to be like the flower’.

“So from a very young age I would start to make up bits of dance. And then I just thought that if I have been given this tal­ent or gift, I should try and de­velop it.”

The im­pact of the nat­u­ral world on Yang’s chore­og­ra­phy has re­mained true, and plays an in­te­gral part in Rite of Spring. Per­formed by twelve fe­male and one male dancer, there are times when they look more like un­der­wa­ter plants moved by the tide than peo­ple.

Each “god­dess” wears a bright coloured cos­tume, and rep­re­sents a dif­fer­ent “Tara” in Bud­dhist be­lief – power, wealth, peace, anger and so on. Be­hind them, a vast golden bowl looms over them, and wooden-style Chi­nese char­ac­ters lit­ter the stage.

“It’s like the god­desses are on duty, they have to take care of the dif­fer­ent mat­ters of mankind,” ex­plains Yip of his de­signs.

“Each one is sym­bolic and ev­ery colour says some­thing. It’s dif­fer­ent from the Rite of Spring pro­duc­tions we have seen in the Western world, be­cause Yang wanted to take it in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion.

“The main thing we did was to in­clude ori­en­tal re­li­gious phi­los­o­phy into the show. And in ori­en­tal phi­los­o­phy, peo­ple al­ways put them­selves into non­hu­man forms – they feel the wind, water, na­ture and they dis­ap­pear them­selves and be­come some­thing else.”

The golden bowl, says Yip, is to rep­re­sent Bud­dhist tem­ples, which are usu­ally adorned with gold fig­ures and dé­cor: “I didn’t want to put an ac­tual tem­ple on stage, that would be too com­pli­cated, I wanted it to be more sym­bolic.”

All of which adds up to a vis­ually strik­ing show, right from the start. Sit­ting on stage mo­tion­less with their large head­dress in place, while the au­di­ence takes its seat, the twelve dancers ex­hibit ex­tra­or­di­nary still­ness and pa­tience. Cast­ing them was an im­por­tant chal­lenge for Yang.

“I wanted the dancers to fit into the show, to de­velop them­selves and be im­mersed in it,” she says. “It’s easy for dancers to be danc­ing, it’s far more dif­fi­cult for them to sit still. And they sit for such a long time, so that was the first train­ing the dancers had to do for this pro­duc­tion – they had to fit into their char­ac­ters and look for some­thing in their minds and hearts.”


Rite of Spring, Ed­in­burgh Fes­ti­val Theatre, un­til 24 Au­gust, 8pm.

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