Shanghai Ballet’s production of Jane Eyre – a modern take on the beloved British classic – is brimming with binaries: Patrick de Bana’s choreography employs both a frantic and luxurious pace, and the galvanising music regularly flits between playful and haunting overtones, resulting in an oeuvre that is at once structured and amorphous. Though modern ballet is not the classically trained company’s metier, the cast gamely and gracefully undertakes the robust challenge of translating Charlotte Brontë’s celebrated bildungsroman from text to stage, indemnifying any technical shortcomings with earnest efforts and plenty of palpable emotion.
The ballet restricts itself to the romantic portion of Brontë’s coming of age tale, likely to preserve its brevity. While the truncated libretto duly preserves the novel’s central themes of atonement and morality, deftly portraying Jane’s internal strife with elegant solos performed by the vivid Ji Pingping, it regrettably neglects the socio-economic and proto-feminist nuances that pepper Brontë’s prose and have sparked much of Jane Eyre’s attendant academic criticism.
Perhaps the ballet’s biggest departure from the work upon which it’s based is de Bana’s decision to position the enigmatic Bertha Mason (Fan Xiaofeng) as a main character alongside Jane and her employer-cum-love interest Rochester (Wu Husheng) rather than hiding her away until the climax. The move works brilliantly in its egalitarianism, dismantling the text’s first-person perspective and empowering Bertha with the agency and platform Brontë never permitted her. That said, at times the dynamic falls prey to the classic horror movie conundrum: the more you show the monster, the less terrifying it seems. Still, de Bana in no way claims a faithful interpretation of the book, and the various deviations present in his work prove, on the whole, intriguing.
The ballet’s choreographic experiments with tempo produce an engrossing if not entirely effective result. The frenetic speed at which much of the motion progresses certainly makes use of the dancers’ technical precision – particularly in the case of Pingping, who shines brightest when her talent for fast, finicky footwork is on display – but when executed in direct discord with a slow portion of the music, the effect occasionally fails to resonate, appearing rushed rather than calculatedly dissonant.
Likewise, the periodic presence of the corps proves only partially satisfying: the use of human bodies to portray flames is undeniably riveting, as are the tableaux created by various groupings of extras, but at times the additional bodies on stage prove somewhat superfluous and distracting. Of the two female leads, Xiaofeng prevails as the more compelling figure, her character’s madness ironically rendering her stronger and more puissant than frail, girlish Jane, whom Pingping portrays in suitably restrained fashion. Husheng offers a solid turn as Rochester, though it’s clear this performance belongs to his co-stars.
The show’s technical aspects certainly deserve a mention. The tantalising backdrop of spindly trees set against a misty moor wholly captures the story’s quintessential English tone, and the simple costume design is splendid. The pas de deux at dawn is a particularly glory to behold: the tolling bells, ethereal light and cascade of rose petals accompanying the scene prove downright spectacular, ethereal and trenchant in equal measure.