It goes without saying that opportunities for UK audiences to see the National Ballet of China are rare. The company’s performances of The Peony Pavilion at The Lowry are the first outside of London since its UK première at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2011. On paper, it’s a special and exciting prospect—in reality, it’s even better.
The Peony Pavilion is one of the most famous love stories in Chinese literature. Choreographer Fei Bo’s starting point for his adaptation was a play version from 1598, which originally took 20 hours to perform. Bo’s work weighs in on the shorter side for a ballet, though, at only two hours long (including the interval).
In theory it’s a simple, Romeo and Juliet story of two lovers—Du Liniang and Liu Mengmei—kept apart by circumstances beyond their control, which they must overcome in order to be together. What’s unusual is the abstract nature of their separatio—the lovers dream of each other, but cannot find each other in real life. The divide between these two realms is blurred and there is little in the way of visual signifiers for the audience. Fortunately, an onstage introduction to the characters and basic plot summary before curtain up helps to relieve some of the confusion.
Adding to this complexity is the fact that Du Liniang has two alter egos, who appear at regular intervals. Kunqu Liniang, played by guest vocalist Jia Pengfei, seems to float across the stage, the full skirts of her traditional Chinese dress disguising her rapid footsteps. Even amidst ballet dancers, she is mesmerising to watch. Kunqu is one of the oldest forms of Chinese opera, and Pengfei’s singing in this style is partnered with classical music by Ravel, Holst and others to form the ballet’s unique score. This fusion of musical styles echoes the ballet’s marriage of different cultural art forms.
One of the highlights of the ballet is the flower garden scene, in which Liniang and Liu Mengmei first meet. The female corps de ballet float across the stage to Debussy’s dreamy “Prelude a l’apres midi d’un faune” in long white dresses, a new take on the “white act” of classical ballet.
Cao Shuci and Ma Xiaodong dance the roles of the lovers with great expression. The passionate pas de deux in which they finally meet in real life is full of soaring lifts, while the dance that marks their dream encounter sees Mengmei symbolically remove Liniang’s pointe shoes. Xiaodong is amazingly nimble and light on his feet, hardly making a sound when he jumps, while Shuci is a fragile and beautiful heroine.
Michael Simon’s stark, minimalist set design helps to keep the ballet contemporary. The pavilion of the title is a rectangular platform suspended from above the stage on four chains—at one point, Kunqu Liniang is raised up above the dancers on this platform while she sings. The bold colour palette of the costumes stands out strongly against the largely black backdrop—Liniang’s innocence is highlighted by sheer white, while her other alter ego, the sensual Flower Goddess (Zhang Jian), is in bold red.
Red is used for impact in other places too—when the lovers finally meet, the stage flooring is partially pulled back to reveal a bright red surface for them to dance on. In the grand finale of the ballet, the lovers are married and thousands of scarlet peony petals cascade from the ceiling.
The Peony Pavilion is a unique production, marrying contrasting elements of east and west to create a vivid, contemporary fairytale that will appeal to audiences all over the world.