As ballet and dance becomes ever globalised and appears to be merging ever-closer, it is worth remembering that the National Ballet of China has always embodied this principle, originally founded by a mix of Russian and Chinese artists. This collision of cultures and styles thrillingly combine in each of their own pieces, and throughout they remain beautifully original. The Peony Pavilion at Sadler’s Wells is no exception.
The story is a classic tale, the equivalent of our own Romeo and Juliet. Indeed, the original opera production premiered around the same time, first performed in 1598. It was around twenty hours long, comprised of fifty-five scenes. This performance thankfully clocks out at just under two hours, and features only six. We follow Du Liniang, a young girl from a rich family who dreams of her scholar lover, flanked at various points by her two alter-egos. After awaking she finds herself unable to continue without him, and even the forces of death itself will conspire to help her find the one she loves. It is a big, bold story that demands the same in those who undertake it.
Li Liuyi’s production is a wonder in both fervent detail and ever-wide scope. Aided by a masterclass in minimalism from stage designer Michael Simon, the two complement each other to glorious effect in a show combining bold colouring on beautifully blank canvases. Large objects dwarfing the dancers below lower and raise to impressive impact. Objects appear and disappear on stage, and to see this piece is a potent reminder of the magic in transformation of stage space. This emphasis allows focus on the large cast of those performing, who are challenged with allowing the real world and spirit world to collide on stage.
To this effect, choreographer Fei Bo has crafted a sumptuous mix of Western-Ballet with occasional hints of an Eastern tinge. In the alter-egos of Du Liniang and her Flower Goddess counterpart, movements are mirrored and echoed but there are lovely touches in the Flower Goddess’ further extended movements, a version of Du Liniang that is silkier, sultrier. A grouped finale, bringing together those of the Underworld and the Living, is a highlight as the entire ensemble are faultless.
As our protagonist, Zhu Yan has a wonderful ability to emote with every inch of her dances. She carries the piece with precision and poise, and is backed with confidence by Zhang Jian as the Flower Goddess, and Jia Pengfei as the Opera Singer, who glides in and out of the action. It is a lovely touch to the traditions of where this show originated from, and helps to move the show at a mostly welcome pace. In terms of clarity the second half suffers slightly, as extended scenes do tend to linger rather than fire but this is a minor quibble.
This show is presented as part of The Movement, a partnership between Sadler’s Wells, Birmingham Hippodrome and The Lowry. As a sign of future success of this partnership, it appears to be a wonderful opportunity for audiences new and old to see some truly wonderful work. Gorgeous from the off and vast in ambition, The Peony Pavilion is a tremendous success.
The Peony Pavilion is playing Sadler’s Wells until December 3.