Review: Shanghai Ballet Company - Echoes of Eternity - London Coliseum

Performance: 17 - 20 August 2016
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Tuesday 23 August 2016

Shanghai Ballet in 'Echoes of Eternity' - WU Husheng as Emperor, QI Bingxue as Lady Yang and ZHANG Wenjun as An Lushan, Photo: Bettina Strenske, London 2016.

Performance reviewed: 17 August

It may have been a different theatre or even the excitement of performing in a different continent. Whatever the reason, I enjoyed Patrick de Bana’s Echoes of Eternity significantly more, here in London, than at my first viewing at the Shanghai Grand Theatre back in May. Then I had concerns about the amplification of the recorded score; the slow movement of the opening scene; and fully understanding the purpose of certain supporting characters. Now, with these factors no longer an issue, I became thoroughly absorbed in the work’s emotional intensity, visual splendour and expressive choreography, beautifully danced. In Shanghai, I saw a three star show; here it upgraded to four, heading towards five; registering one of the most moving performances that I have seen this year.

Here is a story made for ballet, not unlike Romeo and Juliet or Medea in its emotional power. It was inspired by The Song of Everlasting Regret, a brief narrative poem from the Tang Dynasty composed by Bai Juyi in the year 806, recounting the tragic love affair between the Emperor Xuanzong and his son’s wife, Lady Yang, who became the Emperor’s consort. Despite, allegedly, having 3,000 other concubines, the Emperor Xuanzong’s obsession for Yang Guifei led to his neglect of matters of state, the most pressing of which was a bitter, revolutionary war, which threatened to consume his empire. In an act of supreme sacrifice, Yang committed suicide to set the Emperor free from his devotion and (in Bai Juyi’s poem, although unseen in the ballet), he then leads his army to victory. The poem concludes with Xuanzong receiving a message from the afterlife, in which Yang Guifei promises that somewhere in eternity they will meet again.

This is a return visit by Shanghai Ballet to the London Coliseum, following performances of Jane Eyre, also by de Bana, in 2013. Having last come with an interpretation of classic English literature, the multi-national choreographer – born in Hamburg to a German mother and Nigerian father – has now produced a ballet that is intrinsically Chinese, but without slipping into pastiche or cliché. Sublime and mesmerising tranquillity is set by that slowly-unfolding prologue, with the main characters introduced in pools of light, spaced diagonally across the stage. James Angot’s lighting captures and intensifies all the moods from romantic subtlety, to mesmerising intrigue and the stark brutality of the battlefield.

De Bana’s stylish choreography employs a descriptive, idiosyncratic language to create contemporary dance theatre from a neoclassical palette – with an absence of pointe shoes, bare feet much in evidence, a strong emphasis on expressiveness and the courage to use long sequences of silence and stillness to great effect. The love story blooms through four enchanting duets with the crucial moments of meeting and parting having a powerful dramatic impact.

The roles of the lovers were exquisitely performed by two dancers at opposite ends of the experiential spectrum. The company’s lead principal, Wu Husheng, brings an autocratic realism to the complex challenges of the authoritarian Emperor, initially indifferent to life before being poleaxed by love; while Qi Bingxue – a teenager, just 18 months out of ballet school – colours her role as Lady Yang with serene dignity. Their duets were rich in emotional intensity and beautifully danced.

The classes of Xin Lili – director of Shanghai Ballet since 2001, after a long and successful career as its principal ballerina – are exceptionally challenging and so it comes as no surprise to witness the all-around technical strength throughout the company. Wu is an expressive male lead with gentle lyricism and a laconic style that is built upon strong virtuosic technique. His landings are so soft that they appear as if cushioned by feathers. There is also an ethereal quality to Qi’s performance, cloaked in an unwavering confidence that belies her comparative inexperience. Recently I had the pleasure of working on a film documentary about one of the greatest of all Chinese ballerinas – Yuan Yuan Tang (now of San Francisco Ballet) – and it seems to me that Qi has the potential to rise to a similar level of achievement over the next two decades.

In a ballet that oozes with enigma, the most fascinating and mysterious character is the Moon Fairy, a figure present – alongside the Emperor and Lady Yang – in the long and tranquil opening of the ballet. There is a Kabuki-like, gossamer quality to Zhao Hanbing’s haunting performance. She is, in effect, both a messenger of doom and redemption; the voice of the “echoes of eternity” that will reunite the Emperor and Lady Yang in the after-life.

The romantic strength and intimacy of de Bana’s choreography for the principal couple is well matched by the power and fast steps in his group scenes, both for men and women, not least in the two successive male ensemble dances of the first act that represent the different sides to the revolutionary war; and in his movement description of the armed conflict, in act two, where regimented order dissembles into chaos. The group work is superbly executed by the well-drilled corps de ballet, in which the male cohort is especially outstanding. Strong soloist support roles are provided by Zhang Wenjun as the rebellious General, An Lushan and Zhang Yao as the dutiful, yet frustrated, eunuch at the head of the Emperor’s administration.

De Bana selected his own score, assembling a patchwork composite of melodies and themes, including extracts from Philip Glass, Henryk Górecki, Armand Amar, Ravia Goldschmidt and Kodo drumming. It ranges from the lonely, deep sobbing of a cello to the exuberance of soaring strings; from the tranquil soprano melancholy of an operatic aria to cool jazz. Every musical transmission seemed right and although – as always – the performance would have been further enhanced by live music, the aural quality of this recording appeared far superior to that I heard in Shanghai – a great bonus.

Agnes Letestu, a former star ballerina of the Paris Opera Ballet, has turned her hand to costume design with distinction. Her colourful array of rich reds, purples and golden yellows successfully evokes ancient Chinese imperialism; and the sparse but colourful set was imaginatively created by Indonesian/Javanese designer, Jaya Ibrahim. Sadly, his first foray into theatrical set design was also to be the last. He died, aged 67, just a few weeks before the world premiere of Echoes of Eternity at the Shanghai Grand Theatre, in July 2015.

De Bana has unearthed a story that is as old as eternity (if 1,200 years can be described as such) to provide a classic ballet narrative of love, death and redemption. The choreographer is less well-known outside of mainland Europe but de Bana is a “go-to” creative force for many of the world’s leading dancers and directors, notably in France, Russia and Spain (including Andris Liepa, Svetlana Zakharova, Letestu, Aurélie Dupont – the new artistic director of the Paris Opera Ballet – Farukh Ruzimatov and the great flamenco bailaora, Eva Yerbabuena). Echoes of Eternity has the hallmarks of a great ballet that further embellishes the status and reputation of the Shanghai Ballet and its outstanding dancers; and providing an important building block in de Bana’s upwardly-mobile career.

But perhaps the highest praise should go to company boss, Xin Lili. Chinese culture is as old as the mountains and as deep as an ocean trench. In the year that Europe celebrates the 400th anniversaries of the deaths of both Shakespeare and Cervantes, it is worth reflecting that Bai Juyi wrote The Song of Everlasting Regret 800 years ahead of their time. If there is any acceptable generalisation about Chinese culture then it lies in a perceived unwillingness to innovate; but that is not a charge that could possible be levelled at Lili. Her excellent company is not only reaching out to European audiences but bringing new and exciting material by western creatives. Next up will be Derek Deane’s Hamlet, with designs by Lez Brotherston; a prospect awaited with eager anticipation well beyond Shanghai.

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

Photos: Bettina Strenske

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