Choreographer Angela Liong is tapping into inspiring life stories to create a Rite of Spring for the people
Stravinsky’s iconic piece, The Rite of Spring, shocked the music world and caused that infamous audience riot at opening night. It has never ceased to fascinate musicians and dancemakers alike. So when The Philharmonic Orchestra Singapore approached me last year to collaborate in the staging of the centenary of this revolutionary work, I hesitated. I felt the pressure of following in the footsteps of luminous choreographers through the years who have tackled the staging of The Rite.
But that feeling dissipated when I decided that I would stage a different kind of Spring. What caught my attention about the work was not the story of the sacrificial virgin but the role of the oldest and wisest in the original ballet.
For the past five years, together with dancers from my troupe, The ARTS FISSION Company, I’ve been working with seniors from rehabilitation and senior activity centres, most of whom are stroke or dementia patients. We work with these seniors to turn everyday movements into dance, engaging their kinesthetic and cognitive awareness.
Some of our workshops were very emotional, and we learned about the unusual life stories of the elderly participants. We’ve met a geriatric former gangster who now sells ice cream on the weekend and a retired Chinese opera singer in her eighties, who always shows up wearing a string of pearls.
Society’s perception of ageing tends to fixate on the physical ailments of the elderly. This stereotypical frail image erases older people’s individuality and unique life journeys, which is a real shame because their personal stories are so rich with creative potential.
It is precisely this potential that I have decided to tap into for a group of 24 seniors, who range in age from their seventies to nineties. They will reprise the dramatic roles of the venerable elders in The Rite. I want to empower these senior performers with the creative vision of Stravinsky’s great music. I hope to take this opportunity to present a very different image of the elderly to the public.
To reinforce the cyclical idea of rebirth and regeneration in The Rite, I have also included young dancers and have made this a community-based, inter-generational performance; we’ve called it The Rite of Spring: A People’s Stravinsky. In order to introduce Stravinsky’s music and story to the senior performers, we worked closely with two different senior homes and activity centres, offering dance theatre workshops to their elderly residents and members.
Each workshop focussed on specific thematic material from The Rite and aimed to make the senior performers feel at ease and familiar with the performance. The workshops also gave us the opportunity to foster friendship and trust. Unlike younger people, the elderly need a lot more time to adjust to new experiences. We had to slowly prepare them for the final performance at the cavernous Esplanade Concert Hall.
We wanted the show to be more relevant to an Asian audience, so I discussed with my collaborator Maestro Lim Yau (music director of The Philharmonic Orchestra Singapore) my intention to reference the 24 seasonal markers in the Chinese lunisolar calendar. The 24 seasonal markers, with six markers in each season, serve as division points to reflect seasonal phenomenon for agricultural activities in ancient China.
I asked Maestro Lim if it was possible to cut the music into six separate parts with a brief silent gap in between each section. This way I could align the six seasonal markers of spring to tie in with the choreography. The reference of the 24 seasonal markers allows an Asian perspective to parallel Stravinsky’s original tale of the sacrificial spring offering for regeneration. We also hope the familiar cultural bend will engage new audiences from the communities and heartlands of Singapore.
When I tried to align the six spring seasonal markers with Stravinsky’s original notes for the score, I was surprised to see how closely they matched each other in meaning. For instance, section three of the music is marked ‘The Dancing out of the Earth’ while the seasonal marker indicates ‘Awakening of the Insects’. Section six of the music has the note ‘Evocation of the Ancestors’, while the seasonal marker shows ‘Pure Brightness – graves sweeping day’, an important familial event for the Chinese to pay respect to their ancestors.
I also plan to replace the sacrificial virgin from Stravinsky’s original Russian tribe with a child-bride ceremony that is still practiced among some of the poorest tribal groups in Sub-Sahara Africa, India, and the remote mountainous region of China.
Maestro Lim told me that this unorthodox way of presenting The Rite would certainly raise some eyebrows, to which I replied that we should definitely update the shock factor initiated by Stravinsky’s original Rite a hundred years ago.
The Rite of Spring: A People’s Stravinsky is driven by professional artists but actively involves community members in serious art making. I hope this performance will show how the arts have the capacity to inspire and uplift everyday life, touching people no matter who they are and where they come from.
Dance advocate and artist Angela Liong is the artistic director of The ARTS FISSION Company in Singapore. The Rite of Spring: A People’s Stravinsky, presented in collaboration with Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, will be performed on 22 June at Singapore’s Esplanade Concert Hall.