Ornate arm gestures, opulent costumes and overwhelming intensity combine in Shanghai Ballet‘s contemporary ballet Echoes of Eternity. Currently engulfing audiences at the London Coliseum in the powerful mysticism of the Orient, this production is part of the venue’s Shanghai Season and was devised thanks to a collaboration between Shanghai Grand Theatre and Shanghai Ballet.
Inspired by an ancient Chinese poem called The Song of Everlasting Regret, Echoes of Eternity is choreographed by Patrick de Bana (whose previous creation for Shanghai Ballet, Jane Eyre, was performed by the company for their UK debut in 2013). His approach in Echoes of Eternity is predominantly derived from contemporary dance technique, with evocative Eastern embellishment. Indeed, the physical depiction of the work’s dynamic mix of drama and history could not be more removed stylistically from the classical ballets that often grace the Coliseum’s stage. There are no pointe shoes, the dancers’ feet flex, their torsos twist and hunch and many of the shapes and lines they make are distorted and contracted for emotional impact.
Still, despite its decidedly contemporary feel, this romanticised interpretation of a traditional eighth century story ably demonstrates how one of China’s most popular legends has all the narrative components you would find in the most enduring of classical ballets. We see the characters onstage dance with fervour during a long and shadowy journey. Along the way, they encounter eternal love, conflict, community, the supernatural, heartbreak, sacrifice, loss and longing. All those very human emotions and experiences that story-based ballets draw upon.
The libretto (by French dramaturg Jean Francois Vazelle) is based on renowned Chinese poet Bai Juyi’s most popular composition, The Song of Everlasting Regret.
Juyi’s verse is a revered work in Chinese literature. Consisting of 120 lines, it is an epic exploration of love and loss detailing the turbulent real-life affair between Xuanzong, the seventh emperor of the Tang Dynasty, and his treasured consort Lady Yang Yuhuan. Ignoring the fact that Yang was the wife of his own son, Xuanzong became entranced by her and took her as his lover. Totally obsessed by his infatuation, he let his responsibilities as emperor slip. Using his distracted state to their advantage, Xuanzong’s enemies seized the opportunity to defeat his leaderless army and full-scale war broke out. Realising the situation, Yang eventually made the ultimate sacrifice for love – of the emperor and of her country. She committed suicide so that he could focus on his duty as emperor, promising that someday in the future they would be reunited in eternal love.
To bring the ancient romance firmly into the modern day, Echoes of Eternity is constructed with an atmospheric ambiguity. There is no clear synopsis in the programme (simply an extract from Juyi’s poem) and the characters could be representative of people from any time – it is their emotions that drive the course of the evening. The Emperor is a respected, dignified and masterful leader. But he is also a man. And this man is alone. Even worse, he is lonely. Seemingly thanks to the involvement of the other-worldly Moon Fairy, The Emperor is introduced to the beautiful Lady Yang and falls hopelessly in love with her. When rebellion breaks out, Lady Yang sacrifices their love together on Earth for the greater good. Their only comfort is that their love is everlasting and that they will find each other again in eternity. (Perhaps with the assistance of the all-seeing Moon Fairy?)
Absorbing abstract movement; drawn-out moments of stillness and periodic passages of purposeful motion set to silence depict the dynasty-destroying devotion between The Emperor and his favourite concubine. Although the partnership between Wu Husheng as The Emperor and Qi Bingxue as Lady Yang is indisputably intense, I am not sure that I was convinced that theirs was a true love. Qi Bingxue’s Lady Yang seemed somehow detached, even when ensconced in her emperor’s embrace.
The Moon Fairy character was danced with precision and unnerving intent by Zhao Hanbing, whose piercing gaze and mysterious presence does not stray from the central couple for long. Unlike the reassuring appearance of, say, the benevolent Lilac Fairy in classical ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty (a character whose peaceful omnipresence ensures that events unfold in a favourable fashion), it is not explicitly clear what the Moon Fairy symbolises. I still cannot decide whether her existence is to reassure the couple that they will be forever united in eternity in an ethereal realm, or whether she is somehow involved in orchestrating the destruction of their Earth-bound love out of some kind of malice.
Echoes of Eternity is plainly about love and loss. Its narrative focuses on one all-consuming, high-profile romantic relationship that ultimately leads to personal tragedy and disruption of the political status quo. Although procrastination and the notion of time unfolding is part of the tale, it is unfortunate that the narrative – and the dance content – takes a long time to get going. The opening section requires concentration on minimal movements and, throughout the production, the sequences feel very prolonged at times, with lots of repeated (and not always particularly technically demanding) choreography. The backing music is an eclectic mixture played at varying volume – certainly the recorded verbal introduction on opening night would have benefited from being louder. The costumes (by former Paris Opera principal dancer Agnès Letestu) are opulent but the staging itself is minimalist (there are no blacks so there are no wings and dancers are visible before they are technically on the stage). I did find it frustrating that the corps dancers would run on before immediately running “off” with nowhere to hide and there is a lot of (flat-footed, not balletic) running employed in the choreography.
The dynamism of the male dancers is a pleasure to observe, as is the fluid movement produced when the main characters are granted longer sequences to execute. The pas de deux moments between Wu Husheng and Qi Bingxue provide captivating dance highlights in Act One, while the warfare between the rival contingents in Act Two sees the story and dancing pick up pace.
Echoes of Eternity premiered at Shanghai Grand Theatre on 30th July 2015 and last night’s London performance (the first of a five-show run) marked its UK premiere. Artistic Director Xin Lili is certainly making strides in realising her ambition to further Shanghai Ballet’s efforts to tour fresh new productions at the international level.
*Production photography by Chen Wen.
Echoes of Eternity continues at the London Coliseum until Sunday 21 August 2016.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.