Once again this website finds itself out of step with mainstream critical opinion. Praise has been lavish for the National Ballet of China's production of The Peony Pavilion which opened the International Festival's dance programme on Saturday and which I caught up with last night. For the life of me I really can't see why.
This ballet requires a three page synopsis to explain the plot. I read this carefully before each act but I found it really quite difficult to keep track of the plot based on what was actually going on on stage. As far as I can judge from the synopsis (what went on on stage was not a lot of help) it was all about the love of a young woman for a young man who may, or may not be real – or at least starts off as a dream or a fantasy and becomes real by the end. One of the problems with this was that there didn't seem to be much in the way of passion between the two lovers, even though the programme makes much of the exploration of love as being central to the traditions of Chinese ballet.
Visually there is, as in King Lear, striking use of colour but beautiful though the fall of peony petals at the end was it wasn't linked to an emotional punch in anything like the way the similar effect was in last night's show. In the pit, the National Ballet of China Symphony Orchestra gives a superb performance. I think they must have been miked because I can't recall a band sounding so resonant before in what is usually the rather dead acoustic of the Festival Theatre but it made for a loud, exciting sound. Indeed, their playing had all the drama, crescendos and passion which was missing from the action on stage.
Ultimately, however, I don't hold the corps of dancers or indeed the soloists wholly responsible for this. The main responsibility must rest with the choreographer, Fei Bo. The programme note explains that his background is in contemporary dance and to be blunt about it this showed. He didn't seem to have anything much in the way of ideas about what to do with a corps de ballet having got his hands on them. The last time I saw so many people doing so little on stage was probably in the English National Opera production of Kismet. I found little sense of inspiration or excitement in any of his choreography, instead there was a lot of writhing around, or running from one side of the stage to the other. Leaving aside the absence of emotion within the choreography on its own terms, the dancing often seemed to be in conflict with the music. On several occasions orchestrally things would build to an impressive climax, but the choreography didn't seem to notice this. The final ensemble parade picks things up a bit but it's too little too late.
I'm glad that others got more out of this performance, but I was too often unengaged by what was going on on stage. Frankly, I came out feeling there was more grace, skill of movement, and emotional punch delived by one man in last night's King Lear than this considerable company of dancers could collectively managed.