National Ballet of China in The Peony Pavilion

Sadler’s Wells, London
November 29, 2016

Charlotte Kasner

The Peony Pavilion (牡丹亭) is one of the most popular ballets in the classical canon in China, a version of which was performed by the Zhejiang Xiaobaihua Yue Opera Troupe (浙江小百花越劇團) at the Peacock Theatre earlier this year. Author Tang Xianzu (湯顯祖) was a contemporary of Shakespeare (they died in the same year). Whereas that opera version was all-female, aligning it with Shakespeare’s Corialanus, this production by The National Ballet of China (中央芭蕾舞團, known as the Central Ballet Company at home), by choreographer Fei Bo (費波) and director Li Liuyi (李六乙), melds the culture of East and West differently by using impressionistic music by Debussy, Holst and Prokofiev. It is stunning.

In The Peony Pavilion, Du Liniang (danced by Zhu Yan, 朱妍), the daughter of an important official, is accompanied by a Chinese opera singer (Jia Pengfei, 賈鵬飛) and a flower goddess (Zhang Jian, 張劍). It is initially shocking when the tones of the Peking Opera morph into L’après midi d’un faune and a little difficult to shake off the expected associations of Nijinsky’s belle epoch nymphs. This is soon forgotten however as it becomes obvious that the choice of music fits the story like a glove, adding a lush romance and hitherto hidden emotional depths. Du Liniang’s dream encounter with the scholar Liu Mengmei (Ma Xiaodong) unleashes all the latent eroticism of an adolescent and it is easy to see why she cannot match the vividness of her dream with reality.

Throughout her walk in the garden, pining away, and death and descent into the underworld, Du Liniang is dominated by the peony whose petal fell on her as she woke form her dream. A sinister giant red peony above the set later becomes a cold, pocked moon. Her flower goddess accompanies her everywhere, leading her down to the underworld in search of her lost lover. Du Liniang first encounters peasants and then workers in the underworld, the references to the Cultural Revolution and the burgeoning industrialisation of China only too evident. The basketwork sheaves that descend form the flies are especially effective. The Infernal Judge of the underworld looks like the top-hatted capitalist who is swept from the world by Lenin in the famous cartoon.

National Ballet of China in The Peony PavillionPhoto National Ballet of China
National Ballet of China in The Peony Pavillion
Photo National Ballet of China

All is resolved when, with Liu Mengmei also dreaming of Du Liniang, the Infernal Judge decrees that they should marry. Their wedding is spectacular as ghosts from the underworld mingle with the mortals. As Liu Mengmei and Du Liniang’s ghosts unite in remembered passion, Earth and heaven are united as peony petals rain from the sky. Beautiful.

All of the dancers are tall, osier-thin and supple, although it is a pity that the men are not given more to do and that the music was recorded. But what a treat to see the National Ballet of China in such an iconic ballet. It is to be hoped that it will not be too long before their next visit.

A word on the National Ballet of China

The National Ballet of China grew out of an experimental group at the Beijing Dance Academy. Founded on the last day of 1959, it is based in a purpose-built theatre, one of the few in China that specialise in ballet and opera performances. The training was based on the Vaganova technique which was instilled by former Kirov and Bolshoi Ballet dancer Pyotr Gusev, who also worked at the Maly Theatre, Novosibirsk Theatre and Stanislavsky Theatre before spending two years establishing the National Ballet of China between 1958 and 1960.

During the Cultural Revolution, the Company was controlled by Madame Mao and the ballet repertory, hitherto one that had contained all of the major classical works, was reduced to The Red Detachment of Women (紅色娘子軍) and The White Haired Girl (白毛女). After the fall of the Gang of Four in 1976, the classical repertoire was resurrected and modern ballets were added from various sources around the world.