Review: China National Peking Opera Company - Warrior Women of Yang - Sadler’s Wells

Performance: 19 - 22 November 2015
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 25 November 2015

Ensemble in 'The Warrior Women of Yang', China National Peking Opera Company

Performance reviewed: 22 November

The Warrior Women of Yang were so good; I had to see them twice. Opportunities for a British audience to see the art of Jingju (still affectionately translated into the English imperial name of the Peking Opera) are extremely limited – and in this short season at Sadler’s Wells they bought two shows
(- Farewell My Concubine was also on offer). If the chance ever comes along again, I so strongly recommend these uplifting qualities of vibrant colour, athletic acrobats and highly stylised movement. Even the strange falsetto singing and odd Clanger-style twangs in the music, so alien to a westerner exposed to them for the first time, quickly became integral to the enjoyment of this thoroughly wholesome adventure.

One other thing that may be difficult for an English audience to comprehend is the commonplace behaviour of the Chinese aficionados of Jingju. People talk during the show; they routinely get up, leave, and come back, as if at a pop concert; take photographs and film the action on stage; shout encouragement; and there is even a tradition of rushing to the stage after the curtain calls. I understand that, in Beijing, it is traditional for audiences to go onto the stage and mingle with the performers, after the show. Health and safety considerations prevented a repetition of such intimacy here, but there were personnel stationed by the stage, just in case!

This is perhaps the ultimate feminist tale to turn gender imbalance on its head. Set in the time of the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD), the narrative begins with the news that Zongbao and most of the men of the Yang family have been killed repelling an invading army. Despite being a centenarian, the matriarchal Grand Dowager, She Taijun, persuades the emperor to allow the women of the Yang family to lead the Song army back into battle. It turns out that Zongbao’s widow (Mu Guiying) and the mysterious Seventh Auntie (Yang Qiniang) are virtuosos of the martial arts and they command the warrior women to two mighty victories over the invaders.

The first act sets the scene with news of Zongbao’s death arriving at the Yang family home of Tianbo Mansion, ironically as preparations are being finalised for his 50th birthday celebrations. With a feisty Grand Dowager living in a country estate where the door is answered by the faithful retainer who has served the family for 80 years, one could be forgiven for transposing thoughts of eleventh-century China to a more recent Sunday evening pastime. Indeed there were more than passing similarities in the “she who must be obeyed” personas and withering put-downs of Maggie Smith’s portrayal of the Dowager Countess of Grantham with those of Guo Yaoyao as She Taijun! Although the latter had the added beauty of a singing voice as clear, fluid and rangy as a mountain stream.

The action takes off in the two battles of the second act, the movement choreographed to represent combat with assorted weaponry linked to the extraordinary variety of tumbling skills by world-class acrobats. By contrast, the rolling gait of the lead female characters simulates the walking movement of women with bound feet; their motion somewhere between carriage by unseen rolling castors and the actions of Gerry Anderson’s puppets, like Captain Scarlett and the Mysterons.

Every work in the extensive Jingju repertoire is based upon the same formulaic structure. Roles are categorised as Sheng (male), Dan (female), Jing (painted faces) and Chou (clown) and actors rarely, if ever, move between type. The female roles are sub-divided into six groups. She Taijun is a laodan role for an older woman; the 7th Auntie, a cool and elegant professional assassin, played by Pan Yuejiao, is a daomadan (young female warrior).

The Jing roles are male – here represented by Hu Bin and Wei Jiaqing, as the two survivors of the opening battle – with elaborately painted faces and long beards; and Chou (mandarin for “ugly”) is the fool; in this case the emperor’s weak-willed advisor who prefers surrender to the enemy over the option of allowing the warrior women to take control. His vacuous character is signified by a white painted mask over just eyes and nose. Peking Opera usually features a young Sheng role (xiaosheng), elaborately and femininely dressed, represented here in the character of the heroic youngest son, Yang Wenguang, portrayed by a woman (Dai Zhongyu).

An established hierarchy is essential to Jingju and two lead roles are respectively performed by the artistic director of the overall company and the head of Troup 1, the wing of China’s National Peking Opera on this tour. The former is Yu Kuizhi who now plays dignified older sheng roles, such as the emperor, Song Renzong; and the latter (perhaps Jingju’s equivalent of Tamara Rojo) is Li Shengsu, who – as well as running the company – gives a captivating performance as Mu Guiying, with refined elegance in her performance style, graceful movement and a strong, clear singing voice.

A famous male Dan – Hu Wenge – told me during an interview recently that a Jingju star has to be both Pavlova and Pavarotti (ie they have to dance and sing with equal expertise) but he didn’t go far enough because they also require to be Bruce Lee, given the routine demonstrations of martial arts’ skill.

Jingju is an art form that defies western categorisation although I found it to be surprisingly accessible. This is not least due to the vibrancy of colour in the elaborate costumes, with long feathered headdresses and warrior-like pennants protruding from the back and shoulders. Emotions are so simply portrayed in fluttering hands and wide-open eyes; or in the frequency of allowing enormous white cuffs to cascade to the floor before methodically folding them back into place. It’s an action that signifies a return to order.

This legend of a triumphant army of elegant, warrior women led by a great-great-grandmother has opened my eyes to a new world of strange, fluttering sounds, puppetry movement and riotous colour. I would love to see more. The bring-back-Jingju campaign starts right here!

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

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