Review: The Peony Pavillion, The National Ballet of China, The Lowry

Published
24/11/2016 by

When one of the world’s best dance companies turn up at your doorstep, you don’t miss the chance to see them.

That’s why there’s a bum on every seat in The Lowry’s 1,700-capacity main theatre on Wednesday night.

And there’s an air of palpable expectation as the safety curtain twinges and softly-spoken choreographer Fei Bo steps out to introduce the production.

The world’s most populous nation has sent its best classical dancers into the world – as ambassadors not just to its economic power, but growing cultural capital.

One might expect to see the pyrotechnics, lavish choreography, and epic storytelling which marked the Beijing 2008 opening ceremony.

But what unfolds on stage is a more complicated and surprisingly psychoanalytic update of a classic Chinese tale – but powerful nonetheless with a host of 70 highly-skilled performers in an inventive and no-expense-spared production.

The National Ballet of China is playing just five dates in Greater Manchester. Their production has been around the world since it was first staged in 2008 but the visit ‘up north’ is a rare treat - and a sign possibly of the growing links between Manchester and the Far East.

The Peony Pavillion itself is a 400-year-old supernatural love story from the Ming Dynasty era. But in this remake, it has been turned into a turbo-charged psycho-sexual drama worthy of Hitchcock.

The programme for the show likens the tale to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – although comparisons with Orpheus may be nearer the mark – but, frankly, it is a bit bonkers.

Liniaing, the daughter of an aristocratic family, begins the story in a fitful sleep, where she creates two quasi-Freudian alter egos who lead her through a self-created dream world of fairies and demons. Here she meets a lover Liu Mengmei of whose existence she is unsure.

Although the story settles down into a more conventional arc in the second act of the play (a rescue from the underworld and then the lovers reunited), it is not really about the narrative.

Rather the audience is invited to switch off their understanding and simply enjoy the sumptuous choreography, the artistry of the dancers and the compelling interactions between them.

At points, there is sensual, and even overtly sexual undertones, as the lovers tenderly caress – and mental turmoil as the three principal dancers who play the tormented Liniang and her conflicting incarnations vie for supremacy. There’s even a bit of Lacanian mirror theory thrown in for good measure.

For the most of part is on a very human level – with the principal dancers telling their character’s stories in performances which are an utterly captivating blend of European classical dance with some elements of traditional Chinese Opera.

They are helped by opulent costumes, arresting set and stage designs, and a cleverly arranged score by Guo Winjing which is a seamless amalgam of works by Debussy, Prokofiev and others with traditional Kunqu opera.

While there is a strong vein of human drama, it is, of course, the Chinese National Ballet. As the ending of the play makes abundantly clear when thousands of red petals symbolically fall on an empty stage there is an image of unity and strength and perseverance which must be projected

The echoes of the Beijing 2008 ceremony still resound. And yet this remains a compelling and utterly unmissable experience.