Monday, July 13, 2015

National Ballet of China Shows Its Breadth

Yu Xuejiao and cast. Photo: Stephanie Berger 
A question recurs with regularity—why do we watch ballet? Is it for story, classical form, innovation of the genre, or musical elucidation? In the case of National Ballet of China's The Peony Pavilion, at the Koch as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, it seems to be for at least the first three reasons, which also makes the two-hour ballet a confusing mix.

This production, with adaptation and direction by Li Liuyi and choreography by Fei Bo, premiered in 2008 as a highly reduced version of what can be a 20-hour opus. We are grateful for the savings of 18 hours, but in the course of trimming it, the fragments and threads left to tell a complicated, layered tale aren't adequate. But what lingers in the memory are the striking sets and scenography by Michael Simon. A suspended square platform that raises, tilts, and transforms into a mirror. A giant fallen tree, massive crumpled peonies. Snake-like brushstrokes—ink black and neon—on the cyc. Emi Wada's gorgeous costumes—notably featuring wide-legged jumpsuits for the women, and scarf-hem dresses—are appealingly chic, although frequently obscure the expressiveness of the dancers' legs. 
Ma Xiadong, Zhu Yan, and Yu Xuejiao in The Peony Pavillion. Photo: Stephanie Berger
In a sense, Fei Bo's choreography becomes a secondary element in the ballet. His main concern seems to be an elegant line and an array of primarily feminine, never ugly gestures. In many full-length works, ballet can be both the subject and the medium. Many productions include ballroom scenes or international pageants during which the performers dance as the activity at hand. At other moments, dance conveys emotion, becoming the primary language for expressing love, anguish, camaraderie, sadness. In Peony, we see some of the latter, but it is often using standard ballet-glam vocabulary—arabesques, split lifts, a coyly poised foot. In one passage, the man embraces a woman, enfolding their arms in escalating hugging gestures. Perhaps the most literal of such expressions, it moves from evocative to sappy with each repetition.

A scene of rowdy peasants is an example of the dance-as-subject-matter ilk. The (mostly) men carouse, act jaunty, and hack around, pulling the language toward descriptive rather than metaphorical, which soon follows when shadows—silver cloak clad men—waft around the periphery, setting a supernatural aura.
The Peony Pavilion. Photo: Stephanie Berger
In the final act, the wedding scene, the corps' women—wearing red scarf dresses and pointe shoes—step and lunge into forced arches, drawing their parallel palms toward their faces, as if kissing an invisible box. The move to me conveys revolution, inexorable change, collectivism, but not necessarily a romantic gesture. They repeat the step, traveling at length, joined by bare-chested men, as the four main characters weave in and out. The music crescendoes and the lighting blazes in warm hues. After the previous frenetic and confusing panoply of scenes, it's as if the director decided that the finale would be an audience pleaser even if it took all the bombast he could muster. 

Lu Di and Zhang Jian in Red Detachment. Photo: Stephanie Berger
The NBC's second program, The Red Detachment of Women, is stylistically coherent, with its own mime system and use of ballet in a strangely logical way. This 1964 ballet, choreographed by Li Chengxiang, Jiang Zuhui, and Wang Xixian is an ideological and surprisingly feminist statement, based on a previous film, produced in the People's Republic of China. As it has been performed through the decades, political systems have come and gone, while our perception of the ballet can be ironic, even kitschy—as it is perceived now—or instructive, as it must have felt in the 60s. Either way, from the reaction of the heavily Chinese audience at the Koch, it continues to stir feelings of patriotism. (An excerpt was recently performed at Fall for Dance.)

Photo: Stephanie Berger
The ballet follows the path of Qionghua, a peasant (I saw the excellent Lu Na in the role), from slavedom to leading a female military regiment (which is given the juiciest ballet sections). This parable for the country's course is not exactly subtle, nor is the entire ballet, which allows it to be understood quite clearly. Gestures such as raised fists, or a hand pressing down, plus a firm head nod read clearly as power and affirmation. Many of the dance sequences are performed with weapons, most memorably a stunning, endless rapid-fire stage crossing of split leaps by the company, rifles held as if sighting a target. 

Zhang Jian and company. Photo: Stephanie Berger
While ballet was largely banned during the 60s in China as a Western symbol of decadence, this work was permitted since it advanced approved values. Ballet—plus a little martial arts and arms-wielding—could be interpreted as a great physical achievement, a claim to patriotism, apart from its value as a nuanced interpretive art. Also, there are no traditional male/female duets, nor tutus or other emblems of Romanticism. The women wear either silk tops and pants (the "peasants" and bourgeoisie, or grey or blue army uniforms of shorts and tunics, with leg warmers and matching toe shoes, and a standard hair bob. The lithe dancers make convincing soldiers, devoid of Romantic ballet's typical female supplicating expressions and deferential body language. The pointe shoe and the arabesque remain as the form's torch bearers.

Ma Yunhong created the stage designs, from gloomy slave prison to utopian coconut grove, complete with a projected sunrise and blue sky. The music, credited to six composers, is anthemic, bombastic, and yes, patriotic. One wonders how some of the numerous elders in the audience felt while viewing fare on which they were raised. Indeed, a nearby man began talking toward the stage during a number, as if transported to another time and place. He was perhaps acting out what some felt, and others of us could only imagine.

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