Transforming a novel for the screen always risks alienating authors and literary fans. Vicious pruning becomes even more necessary when a novel is adapted for a dance production, making the Shanghai Ballet’s reinterpretation of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre a high-stakes gamble.

Rochester (Wu Husheng) and Jane Eyre (Ji PingPing) in Shanghai Ballet's Jane Eyre. © Zhao Lu.jpg
Rochester (Wu Husheng) and Jane Eyre (Ji PingPing) in Shanghai Ballet's Jane Eyre.
© Zhao Lu.jpg

In the more than 50 years since their inception, the Shanghai Ballet has produced Chinese and Western ballets ranging from In the Mood for Love (based on the Wong Kar-wai film) to The Nutcracker. Easily subsumed into the vague category of contemporary dance, Jane Eyre, choreographed by Patrick de Bana, incorporates diverse forms of movement accompanying an even more diverse score. Excising Jane’s childhood, the production begins with her arrival at Thornfield Hall where she meets her eventual husband, Edward Rochester, and his wife Bertha. With this move, the Shanghai Ballet bets that their agility and passion can aptly depict the love triangle in Bronte’s Victorian classic. If only it were enough to beat house odds.

In Bronte’s novel, Bertha is conspicuous by her absence. A mad pyromaniac who eventually kills herself, the reader knows her largely through Rochester’s description. The ballet, however, vaults her character to prominence, placing her on stage even during private moments between Jane and Rochester. Dancing Bertha, Fan Xiaofeng, her lengthy arms angling out from her torso with palms spread wide as if unable to contain her madness, projects a commanding presence. By contrast, Ji Pingping as Jane is timid and refined, her character’s love for Rochester a far cry from the terrifying intensity of Bertha’s attentions.

The significance of Bertha’s prominence is clear, and the result is poignant: love does not traverse a straightforward path. Even in death Bertha’s presence is felt. The ballet closes with the three lovers uniting in death as angels, according to the program. Jane and Bertha’s feelings for Rochester tie them together eternally. And as the curtain falls, the women nestle on either side of Rochester on a park bench.

More Lothario than Byron, Edward Rochester (performed by Wu Husheng), is not quite the suitor the drama on stage would seem to demand. A satin suit and wavy crop of hair contribute to his surface charm, and Wu’s portrayal does little to add depth. Though a minor character, John Rivers, danced by Zhang Wenjun, furnishes the appeal Rochester lacks. Powerful and poised, Rivers is a better match for Jane’s demure temperament, and Zhang’s performance is superb.

While the balletic soloists weave the narrative, the corps de ballet animate the setting as ghosts, flames, partygoers, and highly animated “rocks”. Though the choreography’s influences remain largely indistinct, at times the movement of the ghosts and flames suggest African dances, like the kpanlogo from Ghana, or energetic Tai Chi.

Excising Jane’s youth in order to focus on the romantic relationships handily brings the plot down to a manageable size. Unfortunately, the production is by no means blameless. Although enumerable BBC and Hollywood adaptations of English novels make it easier to play fast and loose with literary tradition, the same cannot be said for the Western musical canon, which was thoughtlessly raided to support individual scenes. The jarring juxtapositions of melancholic Renaissance song cued next to agitated 20th-century orchestral works was – despite the pieces’ individual beauty – thoroughly unsatisfying in context. When “Greensleeves” entered the soundscape I wondered whether someone had taken bringing an adaptation of an English novel too far and determined that English music, whatever the era, was suitable for an English drama. Benjamin Britten and John Dowland also feature prominently, but so do Debussy, Samuel Barber, and a lesser-known Venetian composer from the Baroque, Giovanni Battista Pescetti. It is difficult to understand what might have led to such bizarre musical choices.

Equal parts of naïveté and gumption seem to have driven the Shanghai Ballet to interpret a Victorian classic for their UK debut. The maddening musical choices might have mirrored Bertha’s own confusion, but the score made it difficult to appreciate the dancers’ talent and range. Though taking risks is admirable, as the odds predicted, the production’s gambles brought disappointing results.

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