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Thursday, June 06, 2019, 11:01
Timely twist to Stravinsky’s sacrificial saga
By Chitralekha Basu
Thursday, June 06, 2019, 11:01 By Chitralekha Basu

Igor Stravinsky’s classic The Rite of Spring has been reimagined as a battle of the sexes by Hong Kong Ballet choreographers, Yuh Egamy and Hu Song-wei. (CONRAD DY-LIACCO / FOR CHINA DAILY)

Hong Kong Ballet (HKB) and Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra joined forces last week to produce The Rite of Spring — a triple bill of dance performances inspired by groundbreaking, brilliant pieces of music. 

Each piece had a distinct vibe about it though. In the Wayne McGregor-choreographed Chroma a bare backdrop, dazzling in its whiteness, was matched with the piercing, strident notes of Joby Talbot’s compositions. In Year of the Rabbit, choreographed and designed by New York City Ballet resident choreographer Justin Peck, the music, by Sufjan Stevens, alternated between playful and mournfully romantic. The Rite of Spring — a brand new dance composition by HKB dancers, Yuh Egamy and Hu Song-wei, based on Igor Stravinsky’s timeless score — came across as a resounding shout-out to last year’s Time’s Up movement against sexual harassment of women.

Justin Peck’s Year of the Rabbit takes its cues from the Chinese zodiac. (CONRAD DY-LIACCO / FOR CHINA DAILY)

What unites all three works is perhaps a brash, idiosyncratic approach by their choreographers. It probably has something to do with youth. Peck was 25 in 2010 when he created Year of the Rabbit, based on an orchestra adaptation of Stevens’ whimsical 2001 electronica score Enjoy Your Rabbit. Wayne McGregor was in his 20s when he founded the hugely influential Studio Wayne McGregor in 1993 and is a pioneer of using artificial intelligence in creating new dance work. He was attracted by the shrill, hard-hitting, futuristic sound in Talbot’s composition Hovercraft, and persuaded him to write six more short pieces to make the anthology called Chroma. The performance is a three-way dialogue between physical movement, John Pawson’s disarmingly minimal stage architecture and a score full of sharp, high-pitched notes conjuring up visions of a highly automated, insular space somewhere in the future. 

Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, written when the composer was 31, caused a near-riot on the opening night at Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris in May 1913. The depiction of pagan sacrificial rituals and especially the exaggerated gesticulations by the male lead — choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky — offended the conservative minds in the audience. Evidently, more than a century later, Stravinsky’s bone-chilling, nerve-wracking composition — which culminates in a young woman sacrificed at the altar of pagan gods — lends itself to an interpretation that is as searing and provocative. 

In Wayne McGregor’s Chroma the costumes seem inspired by shade cards. (CONRAD DY-LIACCO / FOR CHINA DAILY)

In the HKB adaptation by Yuh and Hu, the scene of the sacrificial ritual has been reimagined as a battle of the sexes. The violence is unsparingly graphic. Even after the victim of sexual violence is martyred and strung up against a wall, like a souvenir of the conquest, groping hands continue to assault her life-less body. However, there is a twist in the tale in the second half when the remaining women form a sisterhood and return to the scene of violence to give the predatory men a taste of their own medicine. The sight of women, in dark veils and gothic makeup, clenching black roses between their teeth, strutting around on their toes (the ballet version of foot-stomping), next to the wilting, bare-torsoed men, is a timely and powerful statement underscoring the ways in which women are out to reclaim their place in the world. 

The desire to see a change in the traditional power dynamic between the sexes is also reflected in Chroma, where both male and female dancers wear flimsy shift dresses, a bit like shade cards in a monochromatic color scheme. It’s a giant step toward gender-neutrality although perhaps a somewhat extreme version in which both men and women seem to have been neutered, moving like automated machine parts, precise and flawless. 


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