Guangzhou Ballet of China
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
August 17, 2019
Goddess of the Luo River, Carmina Burana
It’s tempting to be dismissive of Guangzhou Ballet of China. The company was not established until 1993, and has no reputation that I’m aware of in this corner of the world. While China has a rich cultural heritage, Western ballet isn’t a component of it. And its brief two-performance run at Lincoln Center’s Koch Theater, sponsored by the China Arts and Entertainment Group Ltd., seemed a vanity engagement at best.
Further, based on the two pieces the company presented, Goddess of the Luo River and Carmina Burana, the company’s ballet performances are operatic and epic in scope, with a cast of seeming thousands, in which the spectacle is at least, if not more, prominent than the art. Seeing these two programs was like watching ballet on the scale of an Olympic Opening Ceremony.
But … as I watched these two ballets on the opening night of the company’s engagement, thinking of how I’d describe what I, and the relatively stoic predominantly Asian audience, was seeing, I realized that as much of a spectacle as it is, and as similar in scope as it is to epic-style Russian ballets crafted during the time that ballet was under the artistic thumb of Soviet authorities, for what it is, it’s commendable – even more so because China lacks the artistic grounding that centuries of familiarity with the art form provide in the West. So although I have issues with the two pieces – the absence of discernable and /or comprehensible story, the limited choreographic breadth, the unyielding spectacle in which every scene is a climax, the relatively uniform and regimented execution by the corps and the lack of acting finesse by the leads, and the athleticism that permeates the performances, as I sat and watched, I thought that it really wasn’t bad at all. On the contrary, the evening proved quite entertaining once I stopped trying to figure out what it was that the choreographers were trying to say.
Before I comment on the two dances, I must address the most serious problem with the program: the program notes. After reading the notes for Goddess of the Luo River, and then reading it again, and again, I had little understanding of the dance’s background or its cultural significance within the prose that somehow managed to be both florid and vapid. Indeed, the characters are not even identified. Familiarity may be assumed for a Chinese audience, but on the road, that’s a groundless assumption. The notes for Carmina Burana make more sense, but have little connection with what I saw on stage. Words, and their meaning, are important. When the connotation of words in the original language are not translated correctly, or when the translation is created by writers with a limited knowledge of English, the result creates the impression that the dances are less intelligently crafted than they may be. Secondarily, the program should identify the dancers with a measure of specificity, including each of those in featured roles or in discernable dance segments. It’s annoying at least, and unfair, to have no idea who performed what role. In certain cases dancers may be considered subservient to choreography, but they’re never faceless automatons, and deserve to be accurately recognized.
All that being said, Guangzhou Ballet is a real ballet company, with real ballet dancers. What they lack in acting and nuance they make up for in delicacy (the women) and athleticism (the men). And although the choreographic palette is limited (at least based on these dances), they make the most of what they’re assigned to do. In these respects, however, cultural origins even beyond familiarity with the art form must be considered: although this is Western ballet, much of Asian dance is accomplished with little or no facial emotion, and with a minimum of movement. Similarly, hyper-athleticism that permeates the male dancing, including a seemingly endless parade of “tricks,” is an understandable emphasis considering the increased reliance on “tricks,” and audience response to it, in Western ballet at the same time that the Chinese might initially have sought to emulate it. Accordingly, considered as a grafting of one cultural form onto another, the focus should be less on what they failed to accomplish by Western eyes, and on what they did: these dances are gorgeous productions that provide a visual feast for viewers of any cultural heritage.
Goddess of the Luo River, which opened the program, is grounded in Chinese legend and literature. Over 1800 years ago, poet / nobleman Cao Zhi, following the death of his lover (a story by itself), came to the Luo River, saw the legendary goddess (or created her, it’s not clear), and memorialized her story in a romantic poem that thereafter became a cornerstone of Chinese culture.
The story tells of Shen Luo, also called Lady Mi or Consort Mi, who drowned while crossing the Luo River (a tributary of the Yellow River, not far from the area of Guangzhou, which is in south China, slightly north of Hong Kong). But it’s not that simple. According to legend, she loved the area around the Luo River (endearing her to the peasants living there), played the qin with exceptional competence and sensitivity (endearing her to artists), and was extraordinarily beautiful (endearing her to everyone else). She ignited the passion of the god of the river, who, in the form of a white dragon, captured her and took her to his castle lair underwater (i.e., she drowned). Hence a goddess was born. But from the depths, a human heard her mournful qin playing, became enraptured, rescued her, and poked out the eye of the white dragon in the process. Hence a legend was born. In Cao Zhi’s poem, he sees the goddess, hears her playing, they fall in love, but their love can never be forever, she reads his thoughts, becomes hopelessly sad, and leaves him. It is a conflation of these stories (which, essentially, are the same story) that The Goddess of the Luo River presents – although the names of the three characters identified don’t correspond to the characters’ names in the legend.
At the opening performance, the lead characters were portrayed, apparently (they were not specifically identified by performance date), by Fang Afang as Yi Ren (the Goddess), Huang Baimao as Lian Jun (either the human who rescued the goddess, or Cao Zhi, or a combination of both), and Ma Minghou as Ruo Shui (a second female character not found in summaries of the legend that I’ve read).
Fang Afang is a beautiful dancer who initially appears, appropriately, as an ethereal vision. [A centuries-old painting of the goddess is inscribed with the words: “she is said to be as light as a crane standing, on the point of taking to their air but not yet flying,” phrasing taken from Cao Zhi’s poem. That’s an apt description of the way Fang Afang appeared.] She’s soon surrounded by other nymphs. The stage is beautifully populated and staged, although the movement itself is bland. The appearance of a group of male warriors changes emphasis, but not the overall simplicity.
The goddess soon encounters Huang Baimao, and they dance a romantic pas de deux that includes appropriately soaring lifts and attentive partnering, though little visible emotional intensity. Thereafter, the mood turns decidely somber (my recollection is that it’s after a reflective solo by Huang Baimao, but I’m not certain), and the ethereal goddess maintains a sad demeanor for most of the rest of the dance. At one point they’re joined by Ma Ninghou (and, as I recall, another male dancer as well – which could have been representative of Cao Zhi and his lost love), with brings a level of complexity but no change in emotional tone, and ends with the goddess being lifted heavenward, honored by the villagers who elevate her, but alone.
That summary describes the content of what I saw, but not the ambiance, which in this case may be more significant. Between Canadian Peter Quantz’s choreography (apparently he was imported to provide the often presented visual presentations of the legend – in Chinese opera and dance – with a balletic sense), the simple and beautiful ballerina costumes (designed by Anne Armit, also Canadian) and lighting (uncredited), and Du Mingxin’s western-sounding score, the sense of ethereal sadness is pervasive. And while the dance can be criticized for illustrating exactly that, that’s the story. Though not complex by contemporary standards, the choreography is more than elementary, and at times it echoes Balanchine imagery – which by that time the Chinese were familiar with. In short, it does what it was intended to do – merge a classic Chinese story and sensibility with a Western art form.
Choreographer Jiang Qi’s Carmina Burana attempts the same thing, but is more ambitious. While there’s considerably more sound and fury (appropriate for Carl Orff’s composition), fascinating sets (designed by Han Jiang) and lighting (by Chen Xiaji), both of whom are described as having extensive international credits, sumptuously restrained costumes (by Cheng Hua); and talented dancers (especially the hyper-athletic men), the overall sense, though undeniably spectacular, is too disparate in its images and too incoherent in its content. Most concerning is that the inherent ribaldry and seemingly limitless sexual pervasiveness of the original has been dampened into a sort of morality dance based on primitive but undefined urges, infidelity and punishment (a consequence of the infidelity of lovers Helena and Bolanzifaluo) – along with purposeless athletic exuberance.
But the song poems that comprise Carmina Burana, even limited to what was included in the Orff composition, are hardly uniform in content or sensibility, and are often portrayed in primitive, sensual, and aggressive visualizations which fail to account for the variety of the songs and the apparent possibility that the poems may not have been representative (and exaggerated) slices of medieval life, but imaginings borne of frustrations of monastic lives and/or revolts against dogmatic straightjackets. Regardless, it must be emphasized that this is an attempt to graft Chinese sensibility onto Western music, a Western theme (which may or may not be universal), and a Western art form. Seen this way, it’s more appropriate to focus on what has been accomplished.
Initially, the imagery created by Qi, who I’d not heard of but who also has an extensive ballet resume, and his artistic associates, is stunning. And as with Goddess of the Luo River, although the choreography isn’t particularly complex, the focus on patterns, depth, female beauty and male strength (if a Western company presented male dancers doing the seemingly endless tricks performed by both featured dancers and members of the male corps here, audiences would have been cheering), is completely consistent with what Guangzhou Ballet has attempted here – and a more linear presentation would have been inconsistent with the song cycles.
The performances of Zhou Yu (Helena) and Kuo Zuquan (Bolanzifaluo) are limited by the absence of characterization, but they’re otherwise highly competent dancers who execute Qi’s choreography dutifully. The same holds for the other two identified lead characters, Huang Ping (Kety) and Zhang Weiwei (Crace), who are either seducers of Bolanzifaluo or the components of the portrayed infidelity (they’re not identified in the translations of the songs Orff used, at least not in those I read, and their roles are not explained functionally in the program). But it’s the corps here, both the women and the men, which brings the ballet the sense of intensity and primitivism, if not the raw sensuality, intended to match the Orff music.
For those who expected Guangzhou Ballet to be the Chinese equivalent of major Western ballet companies, the product presented may have appeared disappointing. But I had no such expectations – and consequently the combination of Soviet-era athleticism (and the contemporary emphasis on tricks) with a preconceived notion of Asian emotional restraint was not at all surprising – nor was the beautiful imagery and the precise, overly disciplined execution. And the Guangzhou dancers are a well-trained, competent, and engaging group. Overall, Guangzhou Ballet of China, under Artistic Director Zou Gang, impresses as a company of limited breadth but unlimited budget, and promising potential. If and when the company returns, hopefully for a more lengthy engagement, I hope it brings ballets that are more familiar here, which might more fully display the scope of the company’s capabilities. And comprehensible program notes.