3 December 2016
The Peony Pavilion is a plain tale of love, death and ultimate reunion told in magnificent pageantry. Chinese dancers are making their names in companies all over the world, but the ranks of the National Ballet, directed by Feng Ying, are still replete with exceptional dancers. In the lead roles Cao Shuci as Du Liniang, Ma Xiaodong as Liu Mengmei and Zhang Jian as the Flower Goddess Liniang, prove the excellence of their Beijing Dance Academy training underpinning their artistry.
The narrative lacks teeth, with little darkness or dispute, but compensation comes from the setting. The stage designs by Michael Simon, minimal and brilliantly conceived are breath taking: a bare branch, a vivid peony of giant proportions, or a central plinth that tilts and flies. The combination of simplicity and detail is also evident in Fei Bo’s choreography. The corps score in numbers and perfect unison while the solos and duets impress with innovative, intense movement. The central duet in Act 1, when Du Liniang and Liu Mengmei plight their troth, is sumptuous, an amorous flurry of torsos, legs and arms clothed in embroidered silks. Their passion is brought alive in soaring lifts then brought down to earth in teasing moments as he steals a shoe.
Feet are strongly in focus. The ballet opens with bare footed Shuci, curling her toes ecstatically as she waits for love to find her. Stylistically Chinese ballet is distinctive in arms that find aesthetically pleasing forms and hand gestures more elaborate than we in the West are accustomed to, all performed with great delicacy. The glut of beauty is overwhelming and a welcome contrast comes in a gutsy peasant scene where the men get their chance with powerful, athletic choreography.
When Du Liniang loses her love, her despair brings about her death and she descends into the underworld, a gloomy world but lightened with moments of humour. The lovers meet in dreams and visions sharing space but seldom connecting. Finally, the Judge, the arbiter of life and death, allows her to return to earth and their wedding is an excuse for a veritable tsunami of red peony petals to rain down on the lovers sumptuously dressed in red and gold.
Singer, Jia Pengfei, in elaborate traditional dress, provides a link with The Peony Pavilion’s ancient rituals, bringing traditional music and skimming the stage in mesmerising tiny steps. Composer and music arranger, Guo Wenjing, weaves East and West in a surprisingly successful score: the dreamy strains of Debussy’s L‘après midi d’un faune particularly well suited to the languid love scenes. If your tastes favour the Far East, this production is one to cherish.