London Coliseum, London, UK; August 14, 2013
Nineteenth-century English literature is very popular in China, with Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” a particular favourite, so it’s not that surprising that it should appear in the repertory of a Chinese ballet company, especially when that company is Shanghai Ballet, which has something of an international outlook. Even so, it was a brave decision to bring the ballet to London and “home” as Artistic Director Xin Lili puts it.
Choreographer Patrick de Bana and dramaturg Yu Rongjun reduce the story to its essential elements and central characters. The ballet draws on Yu’s previous stage drama of the novel, so in a way this is not so much the ballet of the book, as the ballet of the play of an interpretation of the book. He and de Bana strip away the opening chapters of the novel that deal with Jane’s childhood and start with her approaching Thornfield Hall across the moors and her first meeting with Rochester. That puts us immediately in the centre of the love triangle that is Jane, Rochester and his mad wife Bertha, who unknown to Jane is confined to the attic. While those familiar with the novel might already be aghast, the paring down of the story itself causes little loss of impact.
The ballet is engaging right from the first scene, an ensemble section for the men who dance as moorland rocks set against a starkly beautiful backdrop of a tree in winter against a vast open sky. A repeat of the idea later when Jane flees Thornfield and that includes a great sequence of slides, pulls and lifts is especially terrific.
The action elevates Bertha to the centre of everything. Her appearances on stage are mostly manifestations of her spiritual presence in the house rather than her physical attendance in a room. As such, she is usually only visible to Rochester. It’s a clever device that allows us to visualise his thoughts and dilemmas, and gives lots of opportunities for duets and pas de trois.
As Bertha, Fan Xiaofeng dominates every scene she is in, whether hovering in the background or up close with Wu Husheng’s Rochester. She makes you believe, whether tottering around on pointe or dancing lyrically. When she dances with him, her body reeks of obsessive love. She clings to him, raises her fists, and wraps herself cloyingly around him before desperately sliding to the floor. It’s powerful stuff, and quite a contrast to Wu’s dances with Xiang Jieyan’s Jane that lack emotion and never quite convince. Fan also gets a couple of striking moments all of her own: at the end of Act I when she kneels in a shower of red rose petals, and early in Act II when she tries to claw her way out of a Perspex box that represents her attic prison.
Wu may look a little youthful to be completely convincing as Rochester, but he was certainly upright and aristocratic. His outward appearance was one of cool aloofness, but his relationship with Bertha was clearly a complicated one full of inner turmoil. This was particularly evident in a pas de trois between the couple and Jane. When dancing only with the latter, though, there was a decided lack of chemistry that made it difficult to really identify with the latter’s situation.
As Jane, Xiang starts out quiet, reserved and tender. There is little indication of the strength of the character depicted in the novel. She slowly comes more to the fore, though, and really comes into her own in Act II, after she flees Thornfield and meets Zhang Wenjun’s St John Rivers and his sisters. Unlike with Rochester, Rivers’ love for Jane is completely believable. Zhang’s pas de deux with Xiang was truly heartfelt and the pas de deux of the evening.
Elsewhere among the supporting characters, Zhang Yao was appropriately tense as Richard Mason, Bertha’s brother, while Zhou Jiawen as Blanche Ingram was full of avaricious intent at the ball, forever giving sideways smiles and glances. Dressed completely in white and with her long black hair down, Li Chenchen as the ghost of Helen Burns, a childhood friend of Jane’s who died in her arms, and the one link to her past in the ballet, was chillingly beautiful.
Jérôme Kaplan’s mix of Victorian and modern designs work well throughout. His spare sets evoke perfectly time and place. He manages frequently to convey so much with so little. Rochester’s home always has the same backdrop of huge gothic windows that look onto that bleak sky, but the living room (drawing room) is illustrated with only by a modernist high-backed chair and bench.
Although there were many excellent performances and notable highlights, the ballet doesn’t always gel into a fully structured whole. Part of the problem is the music, which ranges from English Renaissance works by John Dowland, through Barber, Elgar, Britten and more. Some of the choices sent the mind elsewhere, most notably Elgar’s “Troyte” variation, which de Bana uses to accompany Richard Mason’s melodramatics but that, in London at least, many know and commonly associate with Ashton’s much loved “Enigma Variations.” We must remember, though, that “Jane Eyre” is a ballet made in China, where such an association would not apply. It was not made specifically for an English audience with English sensibilities. Even so, I still think the use (should that be misuse?) of “Greensleeves” was a particularly spectacular faux pas. Although of the wrong period, the melancholy Dowland tunes are often surprisingly effective at reflecting Rochester’s dilemmas.
It was undoubtedly brave to bring a ballet of such a complex and much loved story, although I suspect most of the audience were rather less up on the narrative than they thought they were. Overall there is much to admire. The ballet is certainly worth a look, and so are the dancers, whose standard and control was impressive throughout. “Jane Eyre” may be described as a contemporary ballet, but apart from hints at martial arts in those two scenes where the men dance as rocks, it is heavily classical-based with lots of pointework. I did not see a single wobble. And when the excellent ensemble were racing around speedily as rocks or flames, or dancing more formally at the ball, they were always remarkably together.
I for one saw enough to want to see more. I hope we see them back before too long.