Spring forward

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.