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The Peony Pavilion, Festival Theatre

The voice is pitched high, curving in the mewling cadences of traditional Kun opera when the same note floats out from a flute playing Debussy – a magical coalescing of unlikely partners, suggesting what is to come in this visionary production by the National Ballet of China (NBC).

Choreographer Fei Bo’s story of Lady Du, from the 16th-century epic The Peony Pavilion, is told as a dream: possibly ours, as well as hers. For as she trembles, her sleeping senses awakening with longing for Mengmei, a man she has never even met, there is another underlying dream at work. It’s about marrying seemingly disparate ideas: of melding Chinese traditions, in music, movement, costume and symbolism, with a modernity that embraces not just the West’s classical ballet and music, but the boldly effective minimalism of Michael Simon’s set.

On-stage, this creates an exquisite two-act ballet where, even allowing for an uneven second half, the dance has an expressive quality. Do Western eyes, and ears understand Du’s “other selves” – the Flower Goddess (a vibrant Lu Na) and Kunqu singer (the thrilling and elegant Yu Xuejiao) or how her ghost can marry the living Mengmei? No matter. When he (a fleet, light-footed Xin Liang) removes her pointe-shoes, the pas-de-deux with Du (Zhu Yan, poised and spirited) has the energy of liberated desire while the second duet, her ghost in his arms, carries the tenderness of love. The impressively fine dancing ends in one final powerful image: the chair, symbolic of The Peony Pavilion, commanding an empty stage, witness to how tradition can be re-invented but still endure.

Sponsored by Baillie Gifford.


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