A timeless love story: Patrick de Bana on Echoes of Eternity for Shanghai Ballet

David Mead

After their first visit with Jane Eyre in summer 2014, Shanghai Ballet (上海芭蕾舞团) returns to the London Coliseum this month for five performances of a very Chinese-flavoured ballet, Echoes of Eternity (长恨歌). Choreographed by Patrick de Bana and inspired by the long, ancient narrative Chinese poem Song of Everlasting Sorrow (长恨歌 in Chinese, as the name of the ballet), it tells the story of one of China’s best-known legends, that of the romance between the all-powerful Emperor Ming (Tang Ming Huang, 唐明皇) and his favourite concubine, Lady Yang (Yang Guifei, 杨贵妃), which ended in tragedy and, legend has it, led to the downfall of the Tang Dynasty.

De Bana discovered the story in a bookshop in Shanghai. Echoes of Eternity may be told in de Bana’s contemporary ballet aesthetic, but he says he really is someone who likes the past and tradition, and always strives to bring the two together in a way that makes sense to today’s audiences. And as he points out regarding Echoes of Eternity, “love is timeless, and the main point of this beautiful story is love, so much love that it leads to a sacrifice. I always say that in order to know where you want to go, first you have to know where you are coming from. Basically you only need to marry the past with the present and start creating.”

Patrick de Bana
Patrick de Bana

De Bana says that he tries to “find the invisible in stories,” and “to communicate with silence and dive deep into the human soul.” It’s what’s on the inside that really interests him. “I always try to discover the human being standing behind every character in a story.”

He says making Echoes of Eternity “was a wonderful adventure. I discovered a wonderful ancient China. The Tang dynasty was one of the most prosperous times in Chinese history. For me it was like as if I discovered a little bit of magic around every corner.”

“I always need a good reason to want to make a ballet out of a story,” de Bana continues. “In the case of Echoes of Eternity it was the immense love and strength of Lady Yang, taking her life in order to save the emperor. With Jane Eyre it was the character of Bertha Mason with all her madness coming out of love.” Interestingly, he says that many times he finds inspiration more in the second character than in the lead in a story. “But it all depends through which camera you look at the movie.”

De Bana says that his motto is “less is more.” by that he explains that he tries to take away all that is too much and get straight to the essence and beauty of something. “It is the face behind the mask that interests me, the face with no make-up, the real thing just waiting to be discovered.”

[box type=”custom” bg=”#ededed” border=”#939393″]“In heaven like a pair of lovebirds, we’d fly wing to wing; Or else on earth, as twain trees with their branches entwining. Endures the earth, endures the heaven, they shall wear away; This sorrow, howe’er, shall endure forever and a day.”[/box]

The multilingual De Bana has worked all over the world. While his choreographic style is inspired by his own European and African roots and cultures, he says he also takes inspiration in traditional dances and rituals of other cultures living in this world. “There are always human emotions and feelings hidden somewhere.

Echoes of Eternity is de Bana’s second creation for Shanghai Ballet. He comments appreciatively about how the leaders of the company go out of their way to let him know how welcome he is in the city. He says he particularly appreciates the freedom that director Xin Lili (辛丽丽) gives him. “Basically she tries to stop everything else that has not to do with the creation in order to give me the most time possible with the dancers to make the ballet. “It’s a little creative heaven for me.”

Qi Bingxue as Lady Yang and Wu Husheng as Emperor MingPhoto Chen Wen
Qi Bingxue as Lady Yang and Wu Husheng as Emperor Ming
Photo Chen Wen

The challenge in Shanghai says de Bana is “to make the dancers travel in their mind with no limits, to give themselves a chance to become and feel things that they had never imagined they could be or feel. But this something that comes with me and my work. It is like one of my holy rules, to bring and give magic to whoever wants to be part of it. That might be in China, or with Svetlana Zakharova, or with the Vienna State Opera Ballet, or any other person and dancer.”

Shanghai Ballet bring de Bana’s version of the 8th-century story to the Coliseum with a cast that includes Wu Husheng (吴虎生) as the Emperor and Qi Bingxue (戚冰雪) as Lady Yang. The libretto is by celebrated French dramaturg Jean Francois Vazelle, the gorgeous costumes by former Paris Opera principal dancer Agnès Letestu, and the set design by the late Jaya Ibrahim. For the score, de Bana has chosen an eclectic mix that runs from Henryk Górecki to Armand Amar, from Philip Glass to Kodo.

So what does de Bana hope London audiences take away from Echoes of Eternity? “Beauty, magic, the sense and meaning of true love, and the madness that sometimes comes with it,” he says. “I would like them to feel emotions.”

Echoes of Eternity is at the London Coliseum from August 17-20.
For tickets visit www.eno.org or call the box office on 020 7845 9300.