Apparently the national media have branded China’s current sporting efforts in Rio a “flop”. But a visit to the London Coliseum to see the Shanghai Ballet’s Echoes of Eternity proves that the People’s Republic can certainly hit the gold standard when it comes to spellbinding dance drama, even if the Olympic team’s discus displays and whatnot have disappointed the Party.
In adapting an 8th century poem by Bai Juyi that tells of the Emperor Xuanzong of Tang’s all-consuming love for concubine Lady Yang and the political unrest that subsequently fomented, choreographer Patrick de Bana spurns clunky narrative in favour of oblique yet fluent neoclassical movement. It’s set to a patchwork score comprising traditional Chinese song, sections of Philip Glass, guttural Mongolian throat singing and a section of strategic silence.
The result is mesmerising, despite an inauspicious opening in which Zhao Hanbing’s spectral Moon Fairy emerges onto the bare stage accompanied by a man’s voice proclaiming something portentous about ‘images’. But no matter. Zhao is superbly uncanny, bathed in an atmospheric lunar glow as she effortlessly extends her leg, flexes her foot and allows her limb to magically ripple downward. Elsewhere, James Angot’s expert lighting dances off the silken splendour of (former Paris Opera Ã©toile) AgnÃ¨s Letestu’s costumes – most notably a glorious pair of golden semi-sheer culottes sported by the Emperor (the elegantly muscular Wu Husheng). Then there’s the dreamily luminous haze that surrounds the rapt lovers as the court eunuchs crouch and bustle around them.
As Lady Yang, Qi Bingxue is a quiet marvel, initially moving into the Emperor’s orbit with the tiny ornamental steps of someone whose feet have been bound up and decoratively deformed from infancy. But in the first pas de deux, she progresses from submissive gazed-at object into an emotional agent of her own, modulating from playful kittenish foot-pedalling to tender cradling via weightless lifts and serene promenades.
While the love duets are beautifully eloquent, de Bana is equally adept at conveying political and physical battle. Warring factions in chest armour and pantaloons spear the air with ferocious split jetes, as the two main aggressors clash their thrust-out chests in mid-air, the combat inflected with the poses and preparations of martial arts. Of course, the violence ends in disaster for Lady Yang, who inevitably gets the blame for the uprising and is forced to commit suicide. We’re not left on this note of horrible poignancy though, but rather with an image of the lovers in repose, frozen in eternity, framed in starlight and falling snowflakes. For this, de Bana – and his dancers – deserve a medal.
Echoes of Eternity is on in London until 21st August. Click here for more information.