There are moments in Shanghai Ballet’s Echoes of Eternity which offer great visual drama. One occurs at the opening of the second act. The Lady Yang’s scarlet cloak flows across the depth of the stage before it is swept away – a sinuous tide of colour. It could be a scene from House of the Flying Daggers. And this contemporary ballet is indeed set in medieval China, based on the ninth century poem The Everlasting Regret by BaiJuyi. It’s the tale of an Emperor who falls hopelessly in love with a beautiful concubine – a love that ultimately causes his downfall and perhaps that of his entire dynasty.
It’s called a contemporary ballet (something of a catch-all these days) and it’s nothing if not eclectic. Choreographer Patrick de Bana draws on a variety of styles and influences (including his hero is Maurice Bejart).So there are no pointe shoes but there are strong classical influences – mixed with oriental movements, particularly for the warriors and their kungfu-influenced fight scenes. The Lady Yang and her fellow-concubines take tiny tiptoed footsteps, suggestive of bound feet skittering across the stage. The music (recorded) is equally eclectic and features Henryk Gorecki, Armand Amar and Philip Glass, spoken, sung, grunted and ululating voices and sometimes complete silence.
Qi Bingxueas Lady Yang has long clean extensions and a luminous presence. She exudes a serenity, too, that perhaps explains the Emperor’s infatuation – she is the place he can be calm and rest away from the increasingly frenetic and factional court. Wu Husheng as the Emperor, dressed all in gold, focuses on his character’s weaknesses and – in a couple of pas de deux with his servant, (an excellent Zhang Yao) – is carried around the stage, helpless as a puppet. Certainly, he is oblivious to the problems at court and even the ensuing war. He and Lady Yang, utterly engrossed in each other, are blind to the fighters circling around them. This is a strong male corps led by the athletic soloists Wu Bin and a particularly fine Zhang Wenjun.
It all looks beautiful. The costumes (Agnes Letestu) are silken, luminous and flow around the dancers in swirls of luscious colour. There are intimate scenes between the Emperor and his lady, energy and drama in the fight scenes and the mesmerising Zhao Hanbing as the Moon Fairy moves from hunched and crabbed white spider to moments of sinuous lyricism. No Titania, she.But there again who is she? She might be a portent of doom, or even play a more sinister role in the downfall of the lovers. She is never truly explained and nor is the reason for the war, why Lady Yang must be the sacrificial victim – and so much more.
A supplementary cast list was provided, not because there were any changes, but perhaps to give some clue to the characters. Story telling in dance is a difficult art and here there are a lot of questions left unanswered and the ballet loses pace as a result. Ultimately, it’s a thin tale. So don’t look for plot or character development – this production has other pluses. Go instead for the spectacle, some fine impassioned dancing and those dramatic visual flourishes.
Shanghai Ballet: Echoes of Eternity at the London Coliseum until 21st August 2016. For more information and tickets please visit the website.