Startlingly beautiful: Under Siege by Yang Liping

Sadler’s Wells, London
November 3, 2016


At nigh on two hours without an interval, Under Siege (十面埋伏, which literally translates as ‘ambush from ten sides’) by Yang Liping (simp. 杨丽萍/trad. 杨丽萍) is far too long. Indeed, it seems to have grown 20 minutes since the programme (which reckoned 100 minutes) was printed. Is she still “experimenting” as she puts it, I ask myself. Still, if your stamina starts to wane, I guarantee that the very impressive finale will capture everyone. And gosh it’s startlingly well performed. It’s also startlingly beautiful, the latter helped along enormously by Oscar and BAFTA-winning set and costume designer Tim Yip (叶锦添/葉錦添) and noted artist-designer Beili Liu’s (刘北立/劉北立) magical stage pictures, and Fabiana Piccioli’s atmospheric lighting.

Under Siege is centred around the climactic Battle of Gaixia in 202 BC and essentially tells of the two kings, Xiang Yu (项羽/項羽), besieged in the city, and the leader of the attacking Han army, Liu Bang (刘邦/劉邦). Alongside this is a love element into the form of Xiang Yu’s self-sacrificing concubine Yu Ji (虞姬), who kills herself thinking he has been defeated (before he actually was). It’s a classic tale that’s been celebrated previously in music, literature and film; in the latter most famously as the Golden Globe and Cannes winner Farewell My Concubine (霸王别姬/霸王別姬) by Cheng Kaige (陈凯歌/陳凱歌). Under Siege is Yang’s vision of the events that changed the course of Chinese history.

He Shang as Xiang Yu (behind) and Gong Zhonghui as Liu Bang in Under Siege by Yang LipingPhoto Ding Yi-jie
He Shang as Xiang Yu (behind) and Gong Zhonghui as Liu Bang in Under Siege by Yang Liping
Photo Ding Yi-jie

The whole work is framed by thousands of pairs of scissors hanging from above that sometimes move like a gentle swell on the sea. Those sitting upstairs also get the plus of some impressive shadows created by them on the stage floor. Beneath this army of blades, the work plays out in a series of scenes that initially tend to take the names of the leading characters, effectively each one by one, before moving on to generic titles such as ‘Forbearance’, ‘Fight’ (battle), ‘The Rift’ and so on. The narrative gets stronger as the performance goes on. Somewhat oddly, the main programme notes refer to four ‘Acts’ although there’s nothing to suggest that on stage. Those notes also take the form of a poem that is difficult to figure out. My tip, just refer to the far more revealing accompanying printed sheet.

The scene names are announced by paper cutter Wang Yan (汪元), who sits serenely downstage left the whole show, with translations on screens. Given everything, the action is not that tricky to follow, although translations of the words spoken and sung Chinese Opera style by narrator Xiao He (萧何; played by Qiu Jirong, 裘继戎) would have certainly added more layers of understanding. A missed opportunity, especially given the availability of those screens.

Gong Zhonghui as Liu Bang in Under SiegePhoto Ding Yi-jie
Gong Zhonghui as Liu Bang in Under Siege
Photo Ding Yi-jie

While Under Siege is rooted in traditional Chinese culture, the choreography (credited to the lead dancers with Yang described as “chief choreographer/director) draws heavily on contemporary dance and dance theatre as well as ballet, kung fu, wu gong and Chinese opera. Apparently hip hop is in there somewhere too, but I missed that part. It all slots together remarkably well, helped by the episodic nature of the piece with usually at most two main characters in each scene.

He Shang (和尚) as Xiang Yu marks his entry with an enormous back somersault as the hanging scissors turn golden as a mark of his rank. An all-action character with tumbling out of the top drawer. There was more great acrobatics from the powerful, bare-chested Gong Zhonghui (巩中辉/鞏中輝) as Liu Bang, the future emperor. His entry is marked by an innovative dance that makes great use of his carriage carried by four others, which cleverly works upside down as well as right way up. The duet between the two leaders is jammed with the expected flying arms and legs, but also has subtler moments such as when they quite deliberately place a leg in front of their opponent’s, indicating dominance.

Under Siege by Yang LipingPhoto Ding Yi-jie
Under Siege by Yang Liping
Photo Ding Yi-jie

Running through most of the action is the near ghostly presence, even if only in the background of Pan Yu (潘宇) and Gao Chen (高陈/高陈) as the two sides, the white and black, of the soul of Han Xin (韩信/韓信), a tactician whose eventual betrayal led to Xiang Yu’s downfall. Their personal battle as they fought for his soul is dance at its psychosomatic best.

A quieter interlude is provided by the arrival of Hu Shenyuan (胡沈员/胡沈員) as Yu Ji. Bathed in golden light and wearing just a support, he uses his incredibly flexible body to its full as he melts softly and with ballerina grace. For me, it is the highlight of the work. Later there’s a gorgeous, sensuous duet with the emperor.

The rest of the ensemble meanwhile play the armies to great effect, their black shapes often appearing menacingly from the upstage darkness. Yang certainly knows how to stage battles and the fight scenes are absolutely terrific with some of the violence quite realistic.

And so to that final scene. Yang bathes the stage in a carpet of what looks like red feathers that take on the appearance of water as the dancers throw themselves through it, or become re rain as they are thrown in the air. Yang freely admits to Pina Bausch being an influence, and it is she who immediately comes to mind.

So impressive is it all that it’s hard to believe that Under Siege is Yang’s first foray into dance theatre. Her roots as a performer and interpreter of ancient song and dance traditions is clear to see but she succeeds marvellously in giving tradition, and this tale, a decidedly contemporary feel.