The National Ballet of China complete their British tour of The Peony Pavilion with dates at Sadler’s Wells. This production was first seen in the UK at the Edinburgh Festival in 2011. It has become a signature work for them and it’s easy to see why it has come back. Peony Pavilion is a successful blend of Chinese and western music and traditions which has exquisitely lovely costumes from Emi Wada and modern and uncluttered stage design from Michael Simon. There is a substantial and well drilled corps de ballet supporting the two lovers doomed to meet only in death. It is always ravishingly pretty to look at and danced with poise and commitment. There is a real sense of venturing into another world here, though its unfamiliarity and the coolness of its presentation can diminish our investment in the protagonists. A careful reading of the programme beforehand will help to get to grips with the narrative.
This love story dates from the 16th century and is well known and popular in China, where it has a history of performance as a truly epic 20-hour long kunqu opera. A somewhat reduced version of this opera appeared at Sadler’s a few years ago, playing in sections over three nights. Director Li Liuyi and choreographer Fei Bo have here produced a distilled ballet version of The Peony Pavilion in two acts playing for a mere two hours. The narrative concerns a young woman, Du Liniang who in her dreams encounters a vision of her ideal lover, the scholar Liu Mengmei, but who then dies without meeting him in the flesh. After her death, her lover searches desperately for his dream woman and she is released from the underworld to marry him.
One of the complications for viewers is that the heroine, Du Liniang is represented in triplicate. The mortal woman (Zhu Yan) is in white but she has two alter egos, the Flower Goddess (Zhang Jian, in red, seemingly a bolder force) and a kinqu singer, (guest Jia Pengfei), more circumspect, in long traditional blue embroidered robes. All of these combine to illustrate her state of mind.
Jia Pengfei sings from time to time in the traditional Chinese opera style over recorded music. This has been put together by Guo Wenjing, weaving in western orchestral music from Ravel and Debussy among others. You might think that this would have a really jarring effect but the overlaid singing is used sparingly and it is surprisingly successful. Jia Pengfei is a strong stage presence, displaying her beautiful costume and skimming smoothly over the stage on unseen feet.
The first half builds slowly and it is a long time before Du Liniang meets her dream lover. Initially they sense, rather than see, each other but we are finally rewarded with a pas de deux where Ma Xiadong as Liu Mengmei winds the melting Zhu Yan around himself. He caresses her feet and in a charged moment she removes one ballet shoe and gives it to him, a peculiarly potent gesture. He projects more passion than the cool Zhu Yan, particularly in the second half. Here he is confronted by a whole corps of women all wearing only one red shoe as he searches for her in vain. Xiadong is an elegant and restrained dancer, convincingly despairing. The gestures where he fails to grasp the elusive form of Du Liniang recall moments in Giselle, and it would be interesting to see him as Albrecht.
The first act gives more opportunities to the corps of women, all perfectly matched in height. The second gives the men of the company more chances to show off their athleticism. There is a scene set in hell which works well as an amalgam of eastern and western traditions. The Infernal Judge has some of the attributes of a traditional figure from Chinese opera with a magnificent long red beard and huge black sleeves which he swirls dramatically to assert his authority. But the devils’ dancing is much more based on classical ballet. There are nuances here about judgement being passed on the dead that are not that easy to follow, but it is a thrilling spectacle nonetheless.
Finally, the lovers are reunited and go to their wedding dressed in gorgeous ceremonial red and gold robes, surrounded by the huge corps all in red. The stage empties and red peony petals rain down in one final striking image. It’s an ambiguous and apt ending, beautiful but enigmatic like the production itself.
The tour of The Peony Pavilion is supported by The Movement, a new producing partnership between Sadler’s Wells, Birmingham Hippodrome and The Lowry, and we can expect more touring from them in 2017, including Acosta Danza.