Sunday, 27 November 2016
The Peony Pavilion
Standard YouTube Licence
The National Ballet of China The Peony Pavilion, The Lowry, 26 Nov 2016. 19:30
With a population of nearly 1.4 billion, an estimated GDP of US$9.24 trillion in 2013 and a brilliant civilization thousands of years old, I expected a lot from the National Ballet of China's version of The Peony Pavillion. In many ways, we got a lot: a beautiful libretto based on a love story that is said to be a classic of Chinese literature, some fine choreography from Fei Bo, some excellent dancing and some breathtaking designs. However, I had been expecting even more -something commensurate with China's status as a superpower - a work that would stand comparison with the best of the Bolshoi. American Ballet Theatre, the Royal Ballet and the other great national ballet companies of the world. In its present form, it was good but not great - but I think it has the potential for greatness and the company certainly does.
The weakest element of The Peony Pavillion as it stands is the score. Basically, there isn't one or at least not an original one. Guo Wenjing, who has created such beautiful orchestral work as Riding on the Wind, combined bits of Debussy, Ravel and other work from the late 19th and early 20th centuries with some Kunqu singing. As the story was performed in Kunqu opera for several hundred years I should have preferred to have heard something derived from the original score or, better still, an entirely new composition by Guo Wenjing. As it was, when I heard L’après-midi d’un faune my thoughts turned to Nijinsky's ballet which I just could not get out of my head.
Turning from the ballet's weaknesses, let's consider its many strengths. As I said, the ballet has a beautiful story based on the play by The Peony Pavillion by Tang Xianzu who lived between 1550 and 1616. Published in 1598 (just one year after Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet) the programme notes stated that the two works were often compared with each other. Save that they were written at almost the same time I could see very little basis for comparison. The ballet follows the play as summarized in Wikipedia except that the scene in which Liu Mengmei is accused of grave robbing in an attempt to rescue Du Liniang is omitted. In so far as this is a story about love that survives the grave it seemed to have more in common with Giselle than Romeo and Juliet. It is a lot less violent than Romeo and Juliet where at least five characters die or even Giselle where the heroine and Hilarion kick the bucket. It has a happy ending in that Liu Mengmei and Du Liniang get married in a shower of peony petals which lie several inches deep at the end of the performance.
The story gives scope for some powerful roles. The female lead, Du Liniang, was danced by Wang Qimin, a principal who seems to have performed all of Petipa's great roles as well as several that have been created especially for her. The male lead, Liu Mengmei, was danced by Sun Ruichon who is also one of the company's principals. Just before the show began the choreographer came on stage to introduce the characters in costume and he told us that Du Liniang had two alter egos - the flower goddess who was danced by Lu Di and the Kunqu singer, Jia Pengfei, whom I mentioned above. She wore the most gorgeous costumes and entered the stage and even allowed herself to be hoisted on a platform several feet into the air but her principal role was to sing which she did very well. The other characters whom Fei Bo introduced included ghosts which were danced by Yu Bo and Hu Dayong. I was not sure of their role by that stage and the programme notes did not exactly help but they also danced well. Finally, there was the judge of the underworld who was danced by Li Ke.
Each of those dancers and indeed each and every member of the corps displayed impeccable technique. Most if not all of the principals seem to have trained at the Beijing Dance Academy and it is obvious they have been taught very well. The scenes in which they corps participated were the most impressive of the whole ballet. I would love to see them as swans or as wilis. I don't know whether La Bayadere is in the National Ballet of China's repertory but if it is their descent into the kingdom of the shades would be mesmerizing. These extraordinarily gifted young and women must the very best of a massive population. Their potential is enormous.
I should say a special work for Michael Simon who designed the sets and lighting and Emi Wada who designed the costumes. I described the designs as "breathtaking" above and so they were. The last scene where the cast circle Lin Mengmei and Du Liniang to a shower of peony metals is one of the most impressive I have ever seen in the theatre. The backdrop of the tree branch was one of the most beautiful. The underworld scene with its black peonies that eventually fell from the ceiling was one of the most chilling. This was total theatre.
Ballets evolve in time and become great in their evolution. I hope that happens to The Peony Pavillion because the story is worth telling. Perhaps the National Ballet will commission an original score from Guo Wenjing or some other composer. Perhaps this work will inspire another company (maybe one outside China) to make its own version.
This was a rare opportunity to see an impressive company and to learn about an important work of Chinese literature and I am very glad that I did so.