Review: Shanghai Ballet - Jane Eyre - London Coliseum

Performance: 14 - 17 August 2013
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 16 August 2013

Shanghai Ballet 'Jane Eyre' Photo: John Ross

Our visitors from Shanghai provided a welcome late addition to London’s festival of ballet this summer, made all the more fascinating since we know nothing of these dancers and also by the courageous decision to make their UK debut with Patrick De Bana’s interpretation of one of England’s most revered novels. It is certainly something akin to what my Gran would have called “taking coal to Newcastle”.

De Bana is a German-born choreographer, not yet much known in the UK, who has a contemporary ballet aesthetic with similarities to the work of Nacho Duato (with whom he worked for over a decade) and Boris Eifman. By this I mean that there is a full lexicon of simple classical steps in a disciplined technique that is then intermingled with informal, invented movement (wide ranging from pretty to grotesque), which is designed to carry narrative development through an expressionist intent. There is also a reliance on simple but striking visual imagery.

To my mind, any success in this venture required us to wipe our mind clear from prior knowledge of Charlotte Bronte’s fictitious auto-biographical account of Jane Eyre and also to close our ears from time to time. Bronte’s well-trodden story is rather loosely (and sometimes confusingly) represented with De Bana transplanting the shadowy character of Rochester’s mad wife, Bertha, from her exile in the attic into a fully-fledged member of a love triangle, which carries the main narrative tension in this plot. I soon realised that it was fruitless trying to recognise other characters in this translation from book to ballet. Many important figures in the literary Jane’s life are excised from the ballet and understandably so since I doubt any of us would have wanted to sit through five acts!

The worst of this production lies in the recorded music, which reminded me of one of those cardboard-covered free CDs that it was once commonplace to receive as a free gift with certain Sunday newspapers. “A Beginner’s Guide to the Classics” or something similar would not have been an inaccurate summary of this score, apart from the fact that it did not include Pachelbel’s Canon in D (apparently a ubiquitous constituent in all such free CDs). We had an eclectic mix of classical music that even the programme gave up trying to list: from Greensleeves to Debussy; from Elgar to Britten; and from Villa-Lobos to the randomness described only as etcetera in the programme, encompassing several Classic FM favourites. I am sure that there must have been a method in this compilation but if someone had told me that this was an exercise based on chance, I would not have been surprised.

The Shanghai dancers were delightful, well-trained and excellent technicians. The charismatic Fan Xiaofeng was the pick of the ensemble in her sinuous, lilting and suitably wild performance as Bertha Mason. Wu Husheng was a handsome but rather too bland Edward Rochester and Xiang Jieyan was lyrical but sometimes anonymous in the title role. There seemed little chemistry between this pair and it was hard to detect much emotional resonance. Judging by the photographs in the programme Xiang Jieyan is not normally the first-cast Jane and she seems to have stepped up from her usual supporting role as Mary Rivers. The male corps was an effective unit, providing the main group dances, as rocks, flames or party guests, often androgynously mottled by the speckled lighting designed by James Angot. Jérôme Kaplan’s set was uncomplicated but efficient and his costumes, though undeniably pretty, possessed no clear time frame. It seemed like a hundred years had passed every time Mr Rochester appeared in his velvet smoking jacket.

De Bana’s choreography ran the full spectrum from banal and unmemorable to fascinating, especially in terms of the geometry of how he moved bodies in space, in groups but also in a haunting 2nd act pas de deux that consisted of hundreds of circular, twirling movements creating concentric circles within circles and through the opposing rotations of spiral torsion. I might have given up on character recognition but I found myself trying to mentally trace the image of the patterns De Bana leaves behind. All-in-all this effectively summarises a production that had very strong highlights (especially in the work of Fan Xiaofeng and the corps de ballet) within an otherwise unexciting performance.

Continues at London Coliseum until Saturday 17 August 2013

Graham Watts writes for, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times 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.

Photo: John Ross

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