Ever find yourself banging your ex, colleague, step sister, therapist, Ocado delivery man, boss, best friend or secondary school maths teacher, before awaking with that exquisite, crystal-clear knowledge that it was all a dream? Great ballets could be made out of that pure, elevated sense of redemption, that all-consuming plunge into an undeserved innocent bliss. Masterpieces could be forged out of the fire of reassurance that ignites when you realise your most questionable desires or leanings will stay on the right side of the sheets.
Sadly, The Peony Pavilion isn’t one of those ballets. When Du Liniang (Zhu Yan) awakes from a romantic dream, her future demands more than a cold shower and a reassuring cup of tea. Awake, Liniang bears a sharp and singular love for Liu Mengmei (Ma Xiaodong), whose darting, elusive figure has polluted her dreams, animating her slumbering limbs with the attention, enthusiasm and authority of a slightly misogynistic gym instructor, and pulling off her ballet shoes with a lewd suggestion you wouldn’t need old Sigmund to help you decode.
That said, those struggling to find a Western point of reference to talk them through this adaptation of a cherished Kunqu opera could do worse than turn to Freud. Just as the psychoanalyst gave us the ego, the super-ego and the id, National Ballet of China gives us Du Liniang, Flower Goddess Liniang and Kunqu Liniang – a protagonist and her two alter egos. The trio of dancers paint an identity in crisis, an individual battling with nature and with art. Undertaking movements that are equally troubled and stately, the three Liniangs mirror each other with subtle, faltering trepidation. Bold fabrics riot against stark design, and the worlds of dreams and awakening become hazy and inseparable. Liniang’s adoration for Mengmei seeps into all aspects of her existence, permeating her sleeping and waking moments, before joining her broken-hearted descent into the underworld.
True to its themes, The Peony Pavilion is dreamlike and drowsily symbolic. Bringing to mind the Tchaikovsky ballets through both style and configuration, the corps de ballet describe elaborate weaves, where clusters of two, three, or four dancers magnetically peel away from the group. Through such movements, Fei Bo’s choreographer calls the eye across the stage, the elegant motion of his dancers transporting us from scene to scene with minimal explanation or fanfare. However, on many instances, this production is ungraspable for all the wrong reasons. Like a sleep disorder, it leaves us clutching at consciousness, trying to make sense of a world that hides all its clues away.
As Kunqu Liniang, actress Jia Pengfei brings the operatic history of this tale to the foreground with the gentle urgency of a narrator – yet without surtitles translating, the meaning of her words are lost on anglophone audience members. Conversely, there are also moments that feel all too obvious. Liniang’s search for Mengmei takes her through a rabble of clumsy peasants, a caricatured human landscape of fights and flirtations, plucked women and tossed coins, the filtered cacophony of the poor’s dust and energy. In the second act, the muted sensuality of a naked foot robbed of its nude-hued shoe is recalled with fiercely eroticised bravado when a line of dancers erect a row of suggestively-inflamed red footwear.
All these are minor crimes, when held against the clumsiness of this production’s design. Guo Wenjing’s sound, while intelligent in its fusion of ballet score classics and modern composition, has not found its feet at Sadler’s Wells. Pre-recorded flutes shriek brashly with the subtlety of PA system feedback, and there’s this weird, aspirate noise that locates us somewhere between a car passing in the dead of night, and a dog breathing down your neck. Amidst all this audio excess, some of the more melancholy moments feel the most relaxing, and the most dramatic scenes translate as the most disassociating. Michael Simon’s stage design, while striking in its nature-kissed sparsity, is let down by his collaboration with Han Jiang on lighting. A single beam pours through a suspended crêpe peony, bringing out messy, thinning pinks against the flower’s regal red. There’s a severing moment where Pengfei’s voice rises through the speakers, as her figure remains in shadow. A row of ballerinas poised upstage left are given heavy beards as illumination is concentrated elsewhere.
But then, out of nowhere, our choreographer presents this excessive final scene, where dancers clothed in heavy reds flood the stage in urgent, mechanical circles. There’s an imaginatively engineered momentum to this unlikely wedding ceremony, as our dreamy, resurrected protagonist and her handsome, yet seemingly ungraspable, man parade in unison. Here, it’s as if the choreographer has also awoken from deep and course-changing sleep. His work now pulses with angular, frantic movements and a dynamic romantic eeriness, while heavy horns underline, for the first time, the problematic nature of the union. This love, in its eventual accomplishment, is not an altogether celebratory affair, yet in this final movement there’s a world of promise and illumination – both for a couple who have finally become able to grasp each other, and for a company that has finally managed to forge a hold on me.