August 17, 2016
Echoes of Eternity (长恨歌) by Patrick de Bana for Shanghai Ballet (上海芭蕾舞团) is a slow burner. It takes time to get going, and has a slightly overly drawn out end but sandwiched in between is some gorgeous dance from a very impressive ensemble including some elegant pas de deux and a dynamic battle scene.
Inspired by the well-known 8th-century Chinese poem, Song of Everlasting Sorrow (长恨歌), a romanticised account of a true story, the ballet tells how the Emperor Ming (Tang Ming Huang, 唐明皇) falls totally for Yang Guifei (杨贵妃). So distracted and entranced by her is he that he forgets all his responsibilities as ruler. In the vacuum, a rebellion breaks out. Realising that the Emperor’s leaderless army is soon to be defeated, and feeling that it is her fault, Yang commits suicide, thus freeing the country’s leader from fixation with her. Having finally led his army to victory, the Emperor then receives a message from Yang to say that one day they will meet again in eternity.
It’s a tragic love story and about as perfect ballet material as you can get. It’s just unfortunate that unless you have got your head round the narrative, it’s not always easy to figure out what is going on. Having the synopsis in the programme itself in the form of a poem that needs to be doesn’t help matters, although read it slowly (and maybe a couple of times) and the light starts to come on.
In telling the story, German choreographer Patrick De Bana has successfully blended European contemporary ballet (there’s no pointework) with elements of Chinese dance and martial arts. With gorgeous costumes by former Paris Opera principal Agnès Letestu and dramatic, atmospheric sets by the late Jaya Ibrahim that glide in and out, the ballet is also visual delight. James Angot’s shadowy lighting adds another layer of mystery. The whole comes together in a ballet that is undoubtedly Chinese through and through, but (thankfully) without a single moment of cliché or ghastly Western stereotyping.
If you are looking for ecstatic, soaring dance, bravado or fireworks though, you won’t find it here. Instead, the love of the two leads is told through four softly elegant pas de deux (with an early one repeated at the end, this time in a flurry of falling snow). As the Emperor, Wu Husheng (吴虎生) is a cool, aloof Emperor but while he communicated well his boredom with affairs of state, that aloofness and lack of much in the way of facial expression meant I struggled to get any empathy with him or his situation, or feeling for his love with Lady Yang. Even so, the best scene in Act I depicts very effectively his near total separation from his court. As he becomes infatuated totally with Lady Yang, the nobles and officials move around them unnoticed, the business of state continuing.
There are no such problems with the undoubted star of the ballet, though, the absolutely delightful Qi Bingxue (戚冰雪), who dances Yang Guifei, and who remarkably, she remarkably only graduated from the Shanghai Dance School (上海舞蹈学校) in 2014. She has incredibly expressive and graceful hands and arms that somehow fill the space. In contrast to Wu, she really showed her feelings in the pas de deux, he happy smile lighting up the whole theatre. Qi is a dancer I am sure we will be seeing much more of.
Of the other soloists, Zhang Yao (张尧) was perfect as Gao Lishi (高力士) the official who seems to around most of the time trying to keep the administration on an even keel, and who tries to get the Emperor to return to affairs of state.
Zhang Wenjun (张文君) was powerful as An Lushan (安禄山), the general who attempts to mount a rebellion. The Emperor’s loyal troops were led by Wu Bin (吴彬) as Chen Xuanli (陈玄礼). The battle between the two forces is a stirring dance for the excellent men of the company, the two generals fighting it out in the spotlight while their followers battle in the shadows beyond. The epic music here gives the battle a truly grand scale.
As a whole, the music is a patchwork of extracts from Philip Glass and Henryk Górecki, plus moments of Armand Amar, Ravia Goldschmidt and Kodo percussion. There are moments of intimacy, but as with the designs, the overall mood is appropriately dark and foreboding.
Almost omnipresent is Zhao Hanbing (赵菡冰), a figure in white who hovers around, often in the background. This is the Moon Fairy, although perhaps better conceived of simply as the moon, something (or someone) under which everything happens and who sees all. Her presence is a clever device, her dance foretelling the love and war to come, and at the end bringing the message that the two lovers will eventually be reunited in eternity. A near similar device (again the moon) was used recently by Demis Volpe in his Salome for Stuttgart Ballet.
All told, Echoes of Eternity is an interesting ballet from a very interesting company, that led by Xin Lili (辛丽丽) is forging a contemporary-classical path unusual in Asia. It is a work with a very different mood and feel to most story ballets. Just give it the time it deserves.
Echoes of Eternity runs to August 20 at the London Coliseum. Visit www.eno.org or call the box office on 020 7845 9300 for details.
Click here for SeeingDance’s conversation with Patrick de Bana about the ballet.