Jingju meets contemporary dance, Pina Bausch style, in this visually splendid interpretation of the momentous, epoch-making conflict between the Chu and Han kingdoms. China’s equivalent of the Norman Conquest of England came more that a Millennium before the Battle of Hastings: in fact, the Chu v Han wars preceded the Birth of Christ by two centuries, which is more years before 1066 than there have been since.  

© LI Yi Jian
© LI Yi Jian

The final conflict between Liu Bang (the Lord of Han) and Xiang Yu (the King of West Chu) is described by one of the classic plays of Jingju (Peking Opera); known in the west as Farewell My Concubine, although a more literal translation from Mandarin is “The King’s Farewell to His Lady”. This contemporary re-imagining of the famous tale retains key elements of Jingju – notably in the vocal style of narration and in using martial arts – while introducing occasional episodes of beautiful movement quality and overlaying the whole production with the mesmerising, spectacular visual style of designers Tim Yip and Beili Liu.   

Two monumental concepts dominate the design ethos, much in the style of Peter Pabst’s stupendous “one-trick pony” designs for Pina’s later works: firstly, countless open scissors hang from the flies on movable tracks, with an army of twin blades threatening the action below, their steel glimmering with reflected light and chiming as they jostle; and the concluding battle scenes are played out on a carpet of blood-red feathers, which the performers churn into the air by rolling through or kicking.   Two simple ideas, though complex in execution, which taken together bring visual splendour to the work.

© DING Yi Jie
© DING Yi Jie
As with vintage Jingju, all the principal roles are played by men, including the brief but memorable appearances of the concubine (Yu Ji) performed by Hu Shenyuan, although, here - unlike Jingju - he does not take on the image of a woman, as in a traditional dan role. Lithe, fluid, hyper-flexible movement with beautiful arched feet and arms characterised his dancing and the final duet of parting from Xiang Yu channelled emotional imagery of devotion and grief (both king and concubine committed suicide). The role of the headstrong, doomed king was given nobility by He Shang and Gong Zhonghui played his victorious adversary, the warrior king, Liu Bang, with acrobatic athleticism. His character’s warlord status was denoted by reference to the Jingju art of “painted face” make-up.

Two performers portrayed the commander of Liu Bang’s army, a Marshall known as Han Xin.   His yin and yan were represented by dancers being dyed head to foot in white and black respectively. The albino Xin (Pan Yu) had dreadlocks that emphasised his warrior nature while the black Xin (Gao Chen) seemed to be the calculating, sinister side of this split personality.      

The character of Xiao He, a strategic adviser to Liu Bang, acts as narrator, played in traditional Jingju style, by Qui Jirong, the latest in a six-generation dynasty of venerated Peking Opera performers. His grandfather, Qui Shengrong is acknowledged as one of the five greatest-ever sheng performers (leading male roles). Qui Jirong’s impressive and expressive vocal range marks him out as a leading “painted face” actor of the China National Peking Opera Company, which recently performed in London. The one lamented difference from those shows was the absence here of any explanatory surtitles; a serious omission for an audience lacking Mandarin. 

An ever-present visual assist was provided by the lone figure of Wang Yan, a papercutter, who sat downstage left, surrounded by the detritus of her art, busily working away behind a mound of paper, to present exquisitely shaped Chinese characters that introduced the next scene (The Ambush, Forbearance, The Concubine etc). She also cut beautiful paper silhouettes of the doomed lovers, just prior to their final duet.  

© Ding Yi Jie
© Ding Yi Jie
A drum set was uniquely positioned by the front stalls, below the stage on the opposite side to the papercutter. The performers seemed to take it in turns with this percussion and the warrior-like Pan Yu gave the drums a particularly energetic thrashing, his blonde dreadlocks swirling with the blows. The noise level of the music was sometimes uncomfortably unsettling.

However beautiful the setting and the movement quality, it was a struggle to keep up with the action (the lack of surtitles not helping) and, at two hours without an interval, it was taxing.   Jingju is an atrophying art, largely ignored by the younger generations in China. It exists only in its traditional form and with the skills – as in the case of Qui Jirong – often handed down through the generations of one family. The classics of Peking Opera are performed exactly as they have been for decades. Just as ballet has been enlivened by new neoclassical and modern approaches, so may Yang Liping’s contemporary twist signpost a future direction for this traditional multi-faceted art.