Based on Tang Xianzu’s Chinese play dating back to the 16th century, The Peony Pavilion is contemporary to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, to which it is often compared. It was first performed as an opera in the Ming Dynasty’s Kunqu style and originally lasted a whopping twenty hours. Mercifully, this production was shorter. The ballet combines the arts of Kunqu opera and Western classical ballet, in search for a new tradition. At its essence, Peony Pavilion is a love story involving Du Liniang (played by Wang Qimin), a young woman who falls in love with the scholar Liu Mengmei (played by Li Jun) in a dream. They find each other, lose each other, and ultimately she must give up her life to get him back again. Liniang is actually performed as three different parts: Du Liniang, the ballerina, and her two alter egos, the Flower Goddess Liniang (Lu Na), representing the physical self and the Kunqu Liniang (Yu Xuejiao), representing the spiritual self. Together, they guide Du Liniang towards self-discovery. The story delves into the spiritual nature of ideal love and does so in a distinctly Chinese manner; with the Confucian philosophy of the times. 

A scene from <i>The Peony Pavilion</i> © The National Ballet of China
A scene from The Peony Pavilion
© The National Ballet of China

There are some lovely elements in this piece but also some problems. The most successful aspects are the ones that hew most closely to the Kunqu operatic tradition. Yu Xuejiao was ethereally compelling as the Kunqu Liniang, a singing rather than dancing role. Dressed in a traditional Chinese robe, she moved with a magically gliding walk that made it seem as though she was on roller skates. The effect was hypnotic. Her voice was clear and pure and she commanded the stage much more than the rest of the cast.

Guo Wenjing’s music is a pastiche of borrowed styles and themes from well-known Western composers, such as Debussy, Ravel and Prokofiev. It is interwoven with Kunqu operatic music and whilst the score is effective, you’re not going to leave the theater humming any tunes. - if you do, it will probably be Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun

The costumes are both great and not great. They are more cinematic than balletic which makes sense as they were designed by Emi Wada (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Du Liniang wore baggy silk pants and, occasionally, a long tunic, as did Liu Mengmei. On the one hand, they were traditionally Chinese in style and quite beautiful but they tended to obscure and occasionally impede the body movement. The two traditions were in conflict here. The best costume was the one worn by the Infernal Judge. With his fantastic headdress, he made an imposing figure.

The dancing, overall, was not surprising, which in itself is surprising. At the least, I had expected that a Chinese ballet would have something different or distinctive about it. However, the choreography was unoriginal, mostly copy-pasting older works by Western choreographers. In that respect, it was much like the music, and due to the costuming I couldn’t tell how well the artists were performing the steps, but my general impression was that the technical standards for classical ballet are somewhat less rigorous than New York audiences are accustomed to for a company of this level. A curious leitmotif was the foot play between Du Liniang and Liu Mengmei. She removed one of her pointe shoes several times and he played with her feet, somewhat fetishistically. At one point, the corps women were all dancing around with just one pointe shoe on their right foot. I didn’t know what to make of it.

I would like to see further attempts to fuse the Western and Chinese traditions and I’m sure in time a new tradition will arise. This experiment was not a complete miss but it failed to take the risk of being completely original. There’s a sense of playing it safe by using a lot of copy-pasting with the music, the costumes and the choreography.

**111