The Peony Pavilions
The Peony Pavilions
Image: National Ballet of China

The Peony Pavilion @ Edinburgh Festival Theatre

5/5 stars
Fusion power
Feature by Mark Harding.
Published 16 August 2011

For a demonstration of cross-cultural success, you need go no further than the National Ballet of China's The Peony Pavilion, where East and West meet to create a ballet that is exquisite in every respect.

The fuel is one of China's most famous love stories; a tale where the heroine Liniang dies of heartache, but is given a happy ending when the Infernal Judge returns Liniang to the mortal world so she can be united with her lover, the scholar Mengmei. The story is updated with a psycho-analytical twist, as Liniang is represented by three players – the lover dressed in white, the Chinese opera singer who conveys Liniang's moral restraint, and the dancer in red who is her passionate nature.

The musical tone is created by a selection of 20th-century classical music, which both accompanies and contrasts with the oriental musical elements - most strikingly when the Chinese opera soprano is layered on top of Debussy. The orchestral sound is sublime, and worth five stars on its own.

Similarly, the choreography fuses classical ballet with 20th-century styles to spine-tingling effect. The leads are astonishing - in the romantic pas de deux Liniang seems to float impossibly, like a lover in a Chagall painting - and the dancing throughout is elegant and spectacular, concluding in a dazzling wedding procession.

I'm sure there are layers of meaning for Sinophiles, such as the troubling motif of dancers removing one pointe shoe for Mengmei's erotic inspection. (During the period of the story, any well-born girl would have been subject to foot binding.) But you don't need historical and cultural references to enjoy the breathtaking skill and beauty of this celebration of dreaming lovers and gods moved to pity.

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