Review: National Ballet of China - The Peony Pavilion - Sadler’s Wells

Performance: 29 November - 3 December
Reviewed by Siobhan Murphy - Wednesday 30 November 2016

The Peony Pavilion, Cao Shuci
Photo : National Ballet of China

Performance reviewed: 29 November

The Peony Pavilion is a 16th-century Ming Dynasty tale originally performed as a 20-hour kunqu opera. For the National Ballet of China, it’s been distilled to less than two hours and fashioned as a blend of eastern and western tradition. This could be why piecing together what’s happening proves somewhat challenging – even the programme’s synopsis doesn’t seem to correspond entirely to what we see on stage.

The story, in essence , is this: Du Liniang falls asleep in the titular pavilion, and dreams of the scholar Liu Mengmei. On waking she despairs at not being able to be with her dream lover, and dies of a broken heart. The god of the underworld is so moved by her plight that he sends her back as a ghost; she’s united with the real Liu Mengmei and there’s an unconventional mortal/spiritual marriage.

Director Li Liuyi presents all this using a bold aesthetic vision: against Michael Simon’s spare yet grandly architectural sets, he unveils a series of impressionistic moving tableaux, some of which are startlingly beautiful. He also gives us not one but three Liniangs – the ballerina (Zhu Yan), her sensual alter ego, Flower Goddess Liniang (Zhang Jian) and her reasoning alter ego, Kunqu Liniang (the kunqu opera singer Jia Pengfei, who glides around the stage in extraordinary Chinese robes designed by Emi Wada, singing in ethereal tones).

The score, created by Guo Wenjing, lays snippets of kunqu opera over a patchwork of Debussy, Ravel, Prokofiev, Holst and Respighi (and, at one point, heavy panting). The choreography, by Fei Bo, is equally mixed, with classical duets, swooping corps work and Chinese opera acrobatics. Fetishistic footplay appears when Mengmei (Ma Xiaodong) seductively removes one of Liniang’s pointe shoes, then is later surrounded by a troupe of dancers all wearing (and teasing him with) just one red shoe. But what’s most striking about the choreography overall, annoyingly, is its polite conventionality – it feels safe, and unchallenging, a tepid retread of western standards with a bit of tumbling from the male corps dancers thrown in. The dance, ultimately, doesn’t tap any emotional depths, and so this Peony Pavilion, for all its visual ambition, glides by rather sedately, without leaving a lasting impact.

29 November – 3 December

Siobhan Murphy is a freelance writer and editor, who also contributes to Dancetabs and Time Out. Find her on Twitter @blacktigerlily

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