Fei Bo is as much a conceptual artist as he is a choreographer. He once composed a duet for Tamara Rojo to dance with a goldfish! His full-length ballet, The Peony Pavilion – created back in 2008 – provides a stunning visual spectacle that merges live art installation with ballet. The story is as much convoluted as it is ancient yet, stripped to the bare essentials, it is simply a psychological tale of supreme love and reincarnation. Written by Tang Xianzu and first performed in 1598, it is thematically not unlike Romeo and Juliet, authored by Shakespeare earlier in the same decade, although Tang’s text was performed as Kunqu Opera (an older style of Chinese Opera, distinct from Beijing Opera, or Jingju) and it lasted for more than 20 hours.

Ma Xiaodong © National Ballet of China
Ma Xiaodong
© National Ballet of China

The “Juliet” equivalent is the character of Du Liniang, a girl from a rich family who dreams of the perfect love in the form of Liu Mengmei. When she wakes and realises that this great love affair has been imagined, Du falls into a lovesick despair, wastes away and dies (all before the interval). The Infernal Judge of the Underworld decrees that a marriage between these lovers has been predestined and orders that Du returns to the mortal world to be reunited with Liu. The ballet ends with their unconventional wedding.

This bittersweet plot is complicated by sundry fairies and ghosts and the fact that Du Liniang appears in three forms, one being a Flower Goddess (danced elegantly by Zhang Jian) and another played by a Kunqu Opera actress, Jia Pengfei, mellifluously narrating activity in the unmistakeable high-pitched cadences of Kunqu or, indeed, Jingju, for the two disciplines sound much alike to the untrained ear. Jia’s fast moving steps disguised by floor-length gowns to give the appearance of floating across the stage on castors, are another Kunqu characteristic shared with Jingju. The character role of the Infernal Judge – given charismatic depth by Li Ke – is performed in the style of a “painted face” Jingju actor.

If the plot is sometimes impenetrable, the symbolic vision created by director, Li Liuyi, Fei Bo and their set and costume designers (respectively Michael Simon and Emi Wada) is unwaveringly gorgeous and enhanced by effective lighting (Simon in partnership with Han Jiang). A rectangular platform, secured in the four corners by chain lifting blocks, is raised and lowered to accentuate the central action; tilting and reversing to provide a distorted mirror-effect that represents the uncertain mind of Du Liniang as she prepares for death.

Wang Qimin and Li Jun © National Ballet of China
Wang Qimin and Li Jun
© National Ballet of China
 

Strong primary colours dominate the design palette with “snow” and peony petals falling at the end of each act, providing additional impressionist imagery, which is also present in the flowing grace of the female corps de ballet. My only costume quibble is related to the two Ghosts of Black and White Impermanence (played by Wang Jiyu and Wu Sicong). It is clear in their titles why their costumes are black and white reversals of one another but why is the overall impression one of 50s American College boys?

Guo Wenjing’s excellent score draws heavily on pre-existing music. Debussy’s Prélude á l’après-midi d’un faune features heavily in the dream scenes; there are references also to La Mer, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé and extracts of Holst’s The Planets, which brings the wedding ceremony to a booming (and thrilling) conclusion.

As with Romeo and Juliet, the heart of the work must lie in the relationship between the principals because this has to be a love that transcends the grave. As Du Liniang and Liu Mengmei respectively, Zhu Yan and Ma Xiaodong delivered the requisite chemistry, notably in a beautiful pas de deux for each of the two acts, with sweeping lifts punctuated by exquisite moments of slowness and stillness. These were crucial episodes and beautifully observed by two outstanding dance artists; the first of four casts to perform these roles over this brief London season.

Zhang Jian © National Ballet of China
Zhang Jian
© National Ballet of China

Ying Feng has been with the company, since 1980, firstly as a dancer (exactly 30 years ago she herself performed at Sadler’s Wells on the National Ballet’s first London visit) and – from 2009 – as artistic director. The company’s excellent and highly-disciplined corps de ballet and the diverse range of talent across the cohort of expressive soloists must attest to the long consistency of her leadership and experience.

The National Ballet of China is one of the world’s great dance companies, seen too infrequently here in London (although The Peony Pavilion made its UK debut at the Edinburgh International Festival, in 2011, and these Sadler’s Wells performances were prefaced by a week at the Lowry in Salford). The company’s latest original ballet, The Crane Whisperer, which premiered late in 2015, would be an excellent reason for a swift return.