Artistic Director: Feng Ying
Choreography: Fei Bo
Composer: Guo Wenjing
Reviewer: Peter Jacobs
The National Ballet of China was founded in 1959. The company is built on Russian foundations but has continued to enrich this with different schools and styles.
The company’s repertoire includes Western ballet classics, as well as original fascinating–sounding creations: The Red Detachment of Women, The New Year Sacrifice, Yellow River, Raise the Red Lantern, and The Chinese New Year. By presenting Western ballets and creating works of its own with distinct national characteristics, the company has established a successful beacon for the development and promotion of Chinese ballet. The company is a cultural envoy and outward-looking showcase of Chinese culture to an international audience. This rather skates over the period of the Cultural Revolution, where the company under the control of Madame Mao were only allowed to perform two ‘approved’ ballets, free from Western decadence. The Peony Pavilion marks a cultural shift in the company as Chinese artistic heritage and culture once more became permissible.
This unique appearance in Salford is part of The Movement, a dance producing partnership between Birmingham Hippodrome, The Lowry and Sadler’s Wells. Pleasingly, The National Ballet of China are offering a ballet of Chinese origin – The Peony Pavilion, based on a 16th Century story of ‘passion pitted against impossible odds’, an Eastern contemporary of Romeo and Juliet.
Although a useful point of reference, The Peony Pavilion is far from a Chinese Romeo and Juliet. The story of a girl from a rich family Du Liniang and her dreamstate romance with a young scholar, Liu Mengmei. Uncertain if her passionate love affair is real and attainable or imagined and dream-locked, Liniang chooses death. Led to the underworld by the strikingly-imagined Ghosts of Black and White Impermanence, Liniang is sent back to mortal life by the Infernal Judge – powerfully played by Li Ke – where she discovers her lover similarly lost in dreams of her. The lovers are reunited and all is resolved.
The style is clearly rooted in Russian technique, which is delivered with impressive lyrical precision by the entire cast. But the ballet is infused with a lightness of touch and sense of calm and control which seems strangely unfamiliar. Although packed with interesting and distinctive choreography by Fei Bo, The Peony Pavilion has an oddly static visual identity, like a series of paintings brought vividly to life. Michael Simon’s stage design is lavishly austere, extravagantly minimal, operatic in style, full of dark spaces, and striking flower motifs and pieces of set that appear from the darkness. With the lovely costumes by Emi Wada, and Simon and Han Jiang’s complex and precise use of light and haze, and a strong significant use of colour for narrative and metaphor, as a visual piece of ballet theatre The Peony Pavilion is startlingly beautiful: lavish and precise.
Zhu Yang is delightful as Liniang. Ma Xiaodong makes a handsome and quietly intense Liu Mengmei. Liniang has two alter egos – a Flower Goddess (Zhang Jian) and a Kunqu Opera singer (Jia Pengfei), who are outstanding and successfully connect with Zhu Yang to create a powerful triple presence that dominates the stage.
Two Acts and seven scenes, The Peony Pavilion has a smooth and unstoppable momentum. Individual scenes are wonderful – the company as flower fairies, townspeople and denizens of the underworld leave a lasting impression: this is a large company. The Hell scene (act 2, scene 2) is outstanding, full of dark drama and swirling haze with a sky of coal-black peonies. The final scene is quite overwhelming – a wonderful, searching duet by the two leads followed by the Tao of mortals, heavens and earth coming together in celebration as petals tumble from the sky.
Guo Wenjing’s eclectic score of Debussy, Ravel, Respighi, Holst and Prokofiev with original music and the voice of Jia Pengfei creates a world that is both eerily strange and yet familiar.
Whether a Western ballet company could do something similar ‘in a Chinese-style’ is open to debate but this certainly feels like something unique. It is completely a piece of modern classical ballet but there is something in the visual elements and the performances that feels distinctly different and delightful.
The Peony Pavilion is a strikingly lovely ballet: and to think they could have just done Swan Lake.
Runs until 26 November 2016 | Image: Contributed