Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Peony Pavilion

Ensemble scene from The Peony Pavilion. 

The National Ballet of China last visited Melbourne in 2006 with the epic narrative ballet Raise the Red Lantern. (Click here for a review from Jill Sykes in SMH.) The company is over 50 years old and is China's only national ballet company. Under the artistic directorship of Feng Ying, it's a company exploring contemporary means of expression while also making works directly influenced by traditional arts and stories.

The Peony Pavilion juggles that balance. Its story derives from a 16th century Kun opera, but its choreographer, the thirty-something (I'm guessing) Fei Bo, comes from a modern dance background. The music (played live by the National Ballet of China Symphony Orchestra) composed by Guo Wenjing draws liberally from Western canon (Debussy, Ravel, Prokofiev.) An opera singer plays a character role and frequently bursts into traditional singing. A German designer named Michael Simon has designed a geometric, minimal set.

There's a lot going on here and it's unlikely that foreign audiences (and probably a lot of Chinese audiences too) can understand or appreciate the subtleties and influences at play in the production. (Grace Edwards' review below does a good job in explaining the different elements.)

Act One of The Peony Pavilion. The white platform raises
and tilts off the ground. Set by Michael Simon. 

Not versed in Chinese opera, I can really only look at the work as a dance piece - a modern ballet. As such, it works in parts and gains strength as it progresses. The central character, Du Liniang, is played by three woman. There's the actual Du Linaing, in the flesh, plus two sides of her conscious. This is difficult to express in dance, but once that is established, The Peony Pavilion is a lot easier to take on board.

Narratively, it's uneven. It's hard to distinguish the three different scenes of the first Act and there is little sense of progression or theatrical pacing. A trained singer (Zhang Yuanyuan) plays the "moral restraint" of Du Liniang and sings traditional opera in several scenes. This breaks the flow of physical movement and doesn't build the work dramatically.

The second act is much more cohesive. For a start, there's less singing and more sense of story telling as each scene has both a distinct setting and choreographic style. There's a hell scene with all the sinners wearing black (of course) and the Infernal judge in a long red beard and eye patch. The choreography, although not particularly unique, has a sense of urgency and swell in its floor bound ensemble sections.

Like most ballets in the Western canon, there's a wedding in The Peony Pavilion. It's a union of mortal and ghost. With the whole company of dancers on deck and clad in red, running in thick circles, crotching low and then extending up in climactic waves, it's the strongest physicality of the evening. The program describes it as an "unconventional" wedding ceremony (which made me feel better since I didn't even recognise a wedding scenario while I was watching it.)

Unconventional is a good description of The Peony Pavilion as a whole. While Fei Bo does rely on extremely familiar choreographic conventions to articulate narrative points (even dropping into downright cliche frequently), so many other elements (set, music, opera) unite in unexpected ways as to fashion a rather unconventional work. Somehow, by the end, it all comes together, albeit oddly, and I found an appreciation for the ballet that I did not have at interval.

Throughout it all, the dancers, from corps de ballet through to principals,  shift seamlessly between restrain and melodrama and are equally adroit with contemporary dance vocabulary and technical pointe work.

 Click here to read my review of The Peony Pavilion in the Herald Sun, 17 March, 2012.

Here are some links to other reviews of The Peony Pavilion from the Melbourne Season.

Grace Edwards in Dance Informa  

Chloe Smethurst in The Age

Jordan Beth Vincent in Talking Pointes

The Peony Pavilion
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
15 - 18 March 2012

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