Latest Review – The Peony Pavilion [The National Ballet of China] [The Lowry, Salford Quays]


The National Ballet of China

The Lowry, Salford Quays

Until Saturday Saturday 26 November, 2016

First performed at the Pavilion of Prince Teng during the Ming Dynasty in 1598, Tang Xianzu’s epic 16th Century love story The Peony Pavilion (one of Tang’s collectively titled Four Dreams plays) is perhaps best known for the near 22-hour Kunqu Opera adaptation found in the repertoires of almost all historical Kun theatre troupes. Sadly however, due to the arrival of the much more accessible Beijing (or Peking) Opera, the Kunqu art form began to experience a significant commercial decline during the 19th century, though a number of re-established professional Kunqu troupes still remain in some of the larger Mainland Chinese cities, with opera cycles such as Peony still widely performed to this day.

First performed at Beijing’s Tianqiao Theatre in May 2008, NBC director Li Liuyi and choreographer Fei Bo have now condensed the sprawling 55-scene drama into a considerably more palatable two-act fusion ballet, beautifully interweaving Western classical dance with traditionally Eastern influences, and effectively maintaining significant flavours of the Kunqu original.

Marking a significant cultural shift for The National Ballet of China, The Peony Pavilion boldly moves away from the company’s politically charged, revolutionary roots, instead setting its primary focus on highlighting the artistic heritage of the country. During the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, set into motion by Chairman Mao, The National Ballet of China notably came under the control of Madame Mao and were able to perform just two approved ballets in the interest of preserving China’s true Communist ideology.

Written just a few years after Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Tang’s haunting, Oriental contemporary – considered one of the most famous love stories in all Chinese literature – feels very much like a spiritual relative of the former with its central story of two young lovers, caught in a dream-state romance, and faced with seemingly impossible odds.

Composer Guo Wenjing’s eclectic, post-modern score superbly blends traditional Chinese music and instruments with Kunqu vocals and extracts from the likes of Debussy, Ravel, Respighi, Holst and Prokofiev to produce the ballet’s powerful, ethereal and otherworldly soundscape.

Featuring sumptuous choreography and technically flawless performances from its principles – not forgetting the most perfectly synchronised corps de ballet you are likely to see – The Peony Pavilion is a majestic celebration of Chinese artistry, love, anguish and dreams.

It’s a beautifully clean and minimalist interpretation of the work that puts a major emphasis on colour, poetry and symbolism. The cultural and symbolic connotations of the eponymous peony (both metaphoric and practical) are certainly not lost and petals and snowflakes fall almost immediately during the ballet’s most dramatic climaxes.

Using a primarily bare stage, with the majority of decorations flown in from above, Designer Michael Simon does an exceptional job at contrasting the delicate, hypnotic tone of the living and dream worlds with the dark, ominous shadows of the underworld, as mortals, ghosts and other spirits fluidly traverse the two juxtaposing landscapes. Lighting Designers’ Michale Simon and Han Jiang bring an added sense of elegance and obscurity to the two realms and Costume Designer Emi Wada adds to the visual splendour with an array of gentle tones and bold, traditional Chinese costumes.

The National Ballet of China don’t come over to the UK very often, but when they do it’s an event not to be missed. The Peony Pavilion gives British audiences the opportunity to see one of the world’s finest ballet companies in staggeringly impressive form.

Running Time: 1 hour and 55 minutes (including one 20-minute interval)

Final Performance at The Lowry, Salford Quays: Saturday 26 November, 2016

For more information, and to book tickets, please Click Here.

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