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At age 60, dancer and choreographer Yang Liping is still going strong, determined to keep the cultural traditions of China’s ethnic minorities alive. She speaks about her 50-year career and her striking new version of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. “I want to fill the movement with traditional culture and art to make it more solid, more relevant, and more how I think contemporary dance should be.” By Steve Dow.

Chinese cultural hero Yang Liping

A scene from Yang Liping’s Rite of Spring.
Credit: SUPPLIED

For the two million ethnic Bai people, the colour white holds great importance: Bai translates as white. Most of the Bai live in Yunnan province in south-west China, and their most famous dancer is Yang Liping, who rose from being a poor mountain villager to forging her own path as a choreographer, becoming a Chinese household name by championing the preservation of minority cultures and traditions on stage. Yang has extraordinarily long white-painted fingernails, which she says she has been growing since she was 10 years old. These are now an integral part of her famous peacock dance.

The slender 60-year-old’s arms are folded across her elongated traditional red gown in her dressing room behind Brisbane’s Playhouse theatre at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre. She is wearing her embroidered red hat, with spectacles framing her remarkably youthful appearance, and she has not yet quite wound down. Yang’s take on Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring has just made its Australian debut at Brisbane Festival, a week before heading to Melbourne Festival. Her general manager and executive producer, the solicitor Nathan Wang, will interpret the questions for her. He asks Yang if she wants a glass of wine, but she seems a little tentative, distracted.

This new work begins with the mostly female dancers sitting cross-legged on the floor, eyes closed, but with Buddha eyes painted on their eyelids, as though they can see right through the audience members. They gradually offer themselves as sacrifices in a cycle of death and rebirth, circling their heads and long hair wildly like Ferris wheels, finally placing those heads in a huge lion’s mouth. The beast’s costume is operated by a male dancer, who is playing a priest underneath; stripped of the lion outfit, this impeccably athletic priest represents desire.

The women place long, green fake fingernails across the priest’s body and crotch. The green is inspired by Yang’s memory of spring rice harvesting, hands digging into the ground. When death comes, the look on the face of lead dancer Maya Jilan Dong and her dancing compatriots suggests ecstasy or, put in Christian terms, rapture. The “sacrifice is also a sage”, Yang suggests, and her work brims with a dramatic life force, of eros and renewal, suggesting Eastern spiritual precepts of reincarnation; that death is not to be feared in the way Western people often view it.

The sumptuous design is courtesy of visual director Tim Yip, who won an Oscar for best art direction and a BAFTA award for best costume design for his work on the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The dynamic production is contemporary, says Yang, but not in a Western way: “I want to fill the movement with traditional culture and art to make it more solid, more relevant, and more how I think contemporary dance should be,” she says. Brisbane Festival director David Berthold says Yang’s “completely fresh perspective” on Rite of Spring “draws on a Tibetan and Chinese cultural notion that life is cyclical and non-linear”, although Nathan Wang says Bai culture is not Buddhist influenced, perhaps a cautious reflection of the religion’s beleaguered legal and cultural status in China.

Yang worried at first she could not work with Stravinsky’s masterpiece. “It’s very strong music but very difficult to dance to,” she says. “Lots of changes; lots of up and downs in the music.” The production places Stravinsky’s short orchestral work, first staged in 1913, between two sparse and more percussive musical pieces by the Shanghai-based composer Xuntian He. The DNA of the mountain village where Yang grew up imbues the dancers’ moves, echoing a culture that Yang says drummed to pray for babies, sang for good harvests and danced to appreciate the warmth of the sun.

China’s rapid modernisation casts Yang’s choreographic work as urgent: she sees it as her mission to present traditional art elements from different Chinese ethnic groups. The life force on stage thus becomes a living museum. “It’s all disappearing,” she says, suddenly looking serious, when asked about the Bai village culture in which she grew up. “So carrying on is very important.”

Yang’s previous production was Under Siege, which the Brisbane and Melbourne festivals brought to Australia in 2017. The abstract retelling of the battle between the Chu and Han armies 2000 years ago was another rousing dramatic work, with scissors hanging above the dancers and billowing red feathers blowing across the stage, representing blood. Yang challenged gender norms by having a male dancer playing a female concubine and says Under Siege demonstrated that “women’s works of art can be ruthless and strong”.

“I feel like there’s always two sides to life – the black and white; the darker and the bright side,” she says. “I wanted to draw attention to all these conflicting characteristics in people’s lives and in society. The force of destruction in society is very strong, and [I want to show] how people take solidarity together.”

Last year, Yang broke one of her legs while rehearsing the dancers, two months before Rite of Spring’s world premiere in Shanghai. “It was slippery, and I’m getting older,” she says, laughing, although the break was serious, a reminder of brittle bones. “It gave me more belief in the fragileness of our bodies, that so many things can hurt human life. But we need to remain strong. I believe that my form as a dancer is not disappearing; it is still 100 per cent there.”

Notions of Yang retiring as a dancer are premature; she has performed numerous times herself since breaking her leg. Rite of Spring, though, is a story of sacrificed youth, and the troupe here is all young and fresh. Yang and Wang excitedly usher into the dressing room their lead female dancer from this production, a protégée whose story uncannily echoes Yang’s.

Maya Jilan Dong, 24, is ethnic Bai too and born in Dali in Yunnan province, where Yang was also born. She has previously performed in Dynamic Yunnan, Yang’s masterpiece of ritualistic folk dances and drum-beating that is still performed constantly in Kunming, Yunnan’s provincial capital, as well as in Under Siege.

In 2018, Dong performed her first solo dance work, Whip, created from traditional Bai dance, which premiered at Sadler’s Wells in London before touring around Europe, the United Arab Emirates and the United States. It’s been a remarkable run: Dong was recruited by Yang as a singer, not a dancer, at age 11. “They came to my village and took me in,” says Dong, now one of the longest-serving members of the company.

Having read snippets about Yang’s childhood, I want to know more about these village traditions of songs and drumming for most occasions. Yang has said her grandmother was the best singer in their village. One day, when Yang was six, she woke up and heard her grandmother singing about her grandfather’s death. Her grandmother sang all day long, about all the details of the old couple’s life together.

I want to know if Yang’s grandmother sang alone or was surrounded by other villagers in her mourning song, but in a comical mix-up of crossed translations, Yang thinks I want her young protégée to answer this line of questioning in song.

“Okay, I’ll try,” says Dong in English. She closes her eyes, and delivers a sweet, resonant song in Bai language that sounds both plaintive and ancient. Nathan Wang explains the song is about a man trying to work hard for his family. Trying to be strong.

 

Bai is one of 56 officially recognised ethnic groups in China. When Yang was growing up in Yunnan province, her Bai family were village farmers. They grew rice and broad beans. Yang sang and danced as a child, inspired in her moves by nature, water, plants and animals. She was the eldest of four children. Life turned tough early.

When she was eight years old, Yang’s father left the family, and she was forced to help raise her younger siblings. “It was very difficult,” she recalls now. “I had to carry my brother on my back while working at the same time, feeding the pigs and the cows and doing the cooking.”

Her big dance break came at the age of 11, when she was invited to join the Xishuangbanna Prefecture Song and Dance Troupe. This full-time commitment meant not only leaving school in the fifth grade, but also leaving home. Dancing with the troupe helped to form Yang’s interests, being surrounded by seven other children from various ethnic backgrounds. Did the experience help grow her as an artist? “I was the shortest,” she says, laughing.

There is a story that Yang found it impossible to toe the line later in her early 20s as part of the China Central Ethnic Song and Dance Ensemble, based in Beijing. She diplomatically insists now that Beijing was an important time in her career, although in 2017, Yang told the ABC: “The ensemble’s ballet class and physical training made me feel like I didn’t know how to dance anymore. My body was getting stiffer and my physical movement became mechanical.”

Yang was determined to create her own organic physical language. In 1986, she won a national dance contest for her original solo Dance of the Peacock, earning her the moniker the Peacock Princess. In China, the peacock is a totem most closely associated with another ethnic group, the Dai people, but as Nathan Wang explains, “It’s also a totem for Chinese people overall. Also, the peacock is one of the four most important animals in Buddhism. It’s also a ceremonial symbol.”

Dynamic Yunnan, which premiered in 2003, featured Yang among about 70 performers, and was filled with dances and songs celebrating the moon and sun and folk legends. It has provided opportunities to dancers with little formal training: among those Yang chose for the work were poor villagers who needed money to buy cows. She could relate.

“I feel many of the cultural aspects of singing and dancing such as the Yunnan dances are very valuable,” she says. “They have a lot of meaning and depth. I feel many of these things are disappearing today. So it’s of the utmost importance to try to preserve the most classic items of dance.”

Yang, who is twice divorced, declines to speak about her personal life. Her dancing troupe is her life, and she emphasises allowing the young dancers to contribute elements to the work. Does she think she has been influential in encouraging others in China to preserve minority ethnic cultures? “When I began Dynamic Yunnan, there was a rise in aboriginal songs and programs. During that time, a lot of artists followed suit, to create so-called aboriginal singing-and-dance type of shows. But they didn’t really persist after two or three years; a lot of them don’t do it anymore. Dynamic Yunnan has been performed every day for the last 16 years.”

Yang will open two new shows in 2020. She will take her peacock dance and spin it into a much bigger show, Peacock Princess. In Dali, where she was born, she will stage a new singing and dancing show involving five female performers, its title translating from Bai language as Five Golden Flowers. It’s “a real Chinese musical, not like a Broadway musical”, she says. “Most musicals in China come from Broadway. But in China they’re neither commercially nor artistically successful. I’m trying to create something very different.”

I leave the choreographer in her dressing room with her producer and protégée and their bottle of wine and walk back to my hotel in the balmy Brisbane evening. Green fingernails curling around a male torso and Buddha eyes painted on closed eyelids come back to mind. Yang has said she’s not a choreographer who wants to impart messages, but she has suggested we can sometimes deepen consciousness with our eyes closed. The spectacle of these dancers moving with spirit and soul is filed away for later contemplation.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 5, 2019 as "Dynamic force". Subscribe here.

Steve Dow
is a Melbourne-born, Sydney-based arts writer.