Shanghai Ballet: Echoes of Eternity – London Coliseum

Choreographer:Patrick de Bana
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Love and war have often gone hand in hand, and the choices a monarch makes can easily lead to their downfall. Picking the wrong person can be a disastrous policy especially if it leads to divisions at Court, growing discontent and disruption of the political status quo. Echoes of Eternity is a contemporary take on an 8th Century poem, dealing with the dynasty-destroying cost of loving the wrong person, created and performed by the Shanghai Ballet in collaboration with the Shanghai Grand Theatre, and now showing at the London Coliseum.

Emperor Ming is head of a powerful and respected Court, holding together a number of rival factions. But he is alone. One day with the help of the Moon Fairy he is introduced to the beautiful Lady Yang and falls hopelessly in love. Soon the two are inseparable, with Lady Yang even attending political meetings much to the dissatisfaction of the noblemen. Distracted as he is, Ming loses control as rebellion breaks out calling for Yang’s death. Can the lovers sacrifice their happiness for the greater good and what will be the consequence?

Echoes of Eternity is unlike most ballets performed in London and is as far from a classical production as you can imagine. Patrick de Bana’s choreography is more dynamic and less remote than traditional ballet often seems, integrating more contemporary styles of movement and interpretation, as well as a permanent sense of shadow. Noticeably, there is greater focus on the upper body and arm placement while dancers remain reasonably still, and when they do move it feels purposeful and fluid.

The music,too, unites a number of different styles that at times verge on stage musical and classical, with hints of Middle Eastern influences particularly in the ululations that are a frequent refrain in moments of intimacy and tension. But the tone is largely sinister and dark from the start, and not the light and spiritual love story more familiar in Chinese theatre.

One of the best scenes depicts Ming’s growing separation from his Court as he and Lady Yang are entirely engrossed in one another centre stage, while two circles of nobleman move at varying speeds around them, implying the ongoing and urgent business of the court. Similarly, in the second act, de Bana stages a Jets and Sharks-style stand-off between the rival factions, who chase one another off-stage. In one continuous scene, the almost creeping music builds through the gang warfare, to the emotionally charged final meeting of the lovers and the loss that follows, which is powerfully moving.

The leads are ambiguously charming and it’s not clear whether the audience should sympathise with any of them. Wu Husheng’s Emperor is a dominant figure in his royal yellow but his devotion to Lady Yang, and utter devastation is well played, while Qi Bingxue’s Lady Yang is a more detached figure, clearly pleased to secure a prized role as Ming’s mistress but willing to take the ultimate sacrifice for his sake. Zhao Hanbing’s Moon Fairy is a disturbing figure, often twisted and hunched so it’s never clear whether she’s on the side of the lovers or bringing about their destruction.

Despite the operatic artistry and emotional impact of the show, at times the intimacy of the central relationship feels a little lost on the expansive Coliseum stage, while too often the choreography has characters aimlessly running from side to side for no clear purpose. Other than the leads, there’s a mass of underdeveloped characters and, with the focus on the central romance, the people of the Court are less clear than they could be.

The contemporary and dynamic feel of this ballet certainly split the press night audience and, while it was a neat two hours or so, the endless company bows were a tad indulgent. One of the difficulties in attracting new audiences to ballet is the inability to interpret the meaning of the movements in relation to the plot, and while at times Echoes of Eternity does make a meal of some sections, it is a fresh and beautiful vision.

Runs until 21 August 2016 | Image:Chen Wen

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