Sadler’s Wells, London
November 20, 2015
Farewell My Concubine (霸王别姬) could have been subtitled “Listen to the woman and live.” The women in both of the China National Peking Opera Company (中国国家京剧院) productions that we have seen have been exceptionally strong – and in the right. Whilst the men have been busy losing everything by fighting and then wanting to give in, the women have kept their heads and quietly won the day.
Yu Ji (虞姬) may be a mere concubine but she has a sensible head on her shoulders and is a mean tactician. In spite of fighting more than 70 battles, Xiang Yu (霸王) has lost the Chu dynasty to his Han enemies. Disregarding all advice, he is fooled by the treacherous Li Zouche into leading troops into an ambush. Yu Ji is tired of living in a permanent war zone, having followed her overlord for a decade. No doubt there is a dire fate awaiting her in the aftermath of the defeat so, against his protests, she seizes Xiang Yu’s sword and commits suicide as the enemy engulf them.
Costumes are again stunning and packed with symbolism. So much dance (contemporary dance especially) is executed in semi-darkness these days, and in skimpy, equally dark costumes, that it is a feast for the eyes to see so much glorious colour and fabulous needlecraft and to be able to see everything clearly.
The subtle interactions between the musicians and the singers hint at the extensive study and rehearsal needed to perfect the craft. Zhu Hong (朱虹) as the eponymous heroine is both steely and delicate. Her gestures are refined and reminiscent of classical Indian or Javanese dance. She has a lightness of touch and floats across the stage like a feather. All the more surprising then is her final dance, ostensibly to calm her master, but really to prepare herself for death. She wields first a single sword and then two as if they are small twigs, twisting and twirling them around her head like a sinister cheer leader. Her piece de resistance is crossed swords held above her head and then over it as she bends backwards to impale them on the stage, deftly flicking upright, seemingly effortlessly.
The tumbling warriors look equally smooth. They take off, turn double summersaults and roll neatly off stage without noticeably bending their needs or making any preparation at all. Sometimes the landings are flat on a back or shoulder, but they still rolled out with apparent ease.
After the show, my companion recalled a tour of an opera theatre in Shanghai and the sandpit where the tumblers practice. She informed me that they stay out in the sand perfecting their back flips until they can land with their feet in the same prints made when they took off. It shows. The precision and confidence in the battle scenes are extraordinary and drew gasps from the audience.
Small movements are equally fascinating – the neat trick of fan-folding sleeves up and then unfolding them in sweeping arcs is positively flummoxing. How many hours must that detail take to perfect? It is also infused with meaning, sketching in the nuances of each character without upstaging the performer who is centre stage.
The performers also understand the value of stillness. Indeed it is built into the stylisation. Major plots points are allowed to sink in as we see the reactions of everyone on stage. Choreography is complex and totally embodied.
This short visit has been a wonderful opportunity to get a glimpse into this ancient tradition. Let us hope that we do not have to wait another decade before we see the company again.