BY GUS SOLOMONS JR | It may be that nobody does big spectacle better than the Chinese –– with a tradition of unlimited manpower that can turn out sets, costumes, props, and casts of thousands on call.
The China Jinling Dance Company brought the legendary 16th century tale “The Peony Pavilion” to Lincoln Center’s David Koch Theater for just four performances, but the elaborate production trappings rival anything on Broadway.
Tumbling, contortions, and high-flying mix off-handedly with modern-ish movement –– lots of foot-flexed extensions, folk-inspired footwork, and shifting group formations –– in choreographic pageantry created by Ying Zhiqi, Lu Ling, and Wu Ning. Men and women alike have six o’clock high extensions, and the women arch into rubbery backbends.
David H. Koch Theater bursts at its seams with China Jinling's “Peony Pavilion”
Written as a play at the end of the 16th century by bureaucrat-turned-playwright Tang Xianzu, the four-act ballet is a story of adolescent romance (think “Romeo and Juliet”) with a journey to the underworld (as in “Orpheus and Eurydice”), but with a happy ending (a la “Sleeping Beauty.”)
Du Liniang, daughter of a magistrate, falls in love in a dream with young scholar Liu Mengmei, and when she wakens to find he’s not there, she dies of sadness, but not before drawing a self-portrait “as a testimony of her beauty to the living world.” Liu stumbles upon her portrait in a market on his way to his exams and buys it. Her wandering spirit sees this and rushes to reunite with him –– no matter that he’s alive and she’s dead.
Du Liniang then suffers the torments of Hell for transgressing the bounds of death, but the Infernal Judge (ferocious Li Yanfeng) gives her a reprieve and the happy pair reunites in perpetuity, wearing a robe made with miles of hot pink fabric embroidered with peonies trailing behind them from the orchestra pit to the top of an upstage stairway.
There’s never any doubt about who’s happy, sad, hot to trot; facial expressions telegraph emotions. On opening night, the understudies went on, due to the injury of a principal (Hu Qinxin or her partner Xu Peng.) Xu Xinyu and Han Bo, respectively, were stalwart substitutes. Their love duets –– in Act I, when she dreams of him, and in Act III, when they reunite –– are full of doe-eyed mooning but also risky and difficult lifting passages.
This narrative is played out in pantomimic detail, using every imaginable theatrical device. Doctors trying to cure Du Liniang scamper with potions in and out of a series of lattice doors, like in a Marx Brothers movie. Vividly colored, flowery backdrops fly in and out to change moods and locations. Wang Ruiguo’s colorful, hyperactive lighting surrounds the principals with glowing auras and instantaneously shifts from one intense hue to another.
Mo Xiaomin’s lush costumes range widely in color palettes and shapes. In the Prologue, subtle variations of white on Liu Mengmei’s fellow students’ robes contrast his pale lemon one and the vernal pastels of the young women’s flowing gowns. Later, in the Netherworld, bright reds, greens, black and white, and metallics assault us with aggressive tones and textures, and flames of billowing silk crackle behind six columns topped with electrified jack-o-lantern heads.
When Du Liniang flies to heaven from her deathbed, fog spills in from the wings, masking the rolling bodies of angels, and when they rise, blinding white light suddenly drenches their dazzling white robes. Such hyperbolically theatrical moments fill the landscape of the Pavilion, and these visual zingers keep jolting you from disbelief of the dramatic exaggeration.
“Pavilion” reflects its culture, created to play to thousands in arena-sized venues. Everything about it is big –– even the lovers’ intimate moments reach to the rafters. No need to fill in with your imagination; it’s all spread out in a lavish visual feast.
And the music! Credited to composers Fang Ming, Wang Wei, and Hui Peifeng, it threatens to suffocate the action with relentlessly climactic epic movie style scoring. Each scene tops the last with an orgasm of recorded orchestration at room-shaking volume.
There are no live musicians, because the theater’s newly expanded pit is part of the playing area. Du Liniang drops her self-portrait onto a giant lily pad that “floats” there. Later, she dives into the pit to escape her captors and subsequently re-emerges upside down and glides on the demons’ uplifted arms, upstage into a mist-laden passage back to life and the arms of her lover.
The largely Asian audience chattered throughout, snapped photos, despite repeated announcements –– in English –– prohibiting it, and had a rousing good time. An Occidental theatergoer might assume it was the first live theater experience for many in attendance –– or it could be just another cultural norm, misunderstood by the uninitiated.
CHINA JINLING DANCE COMPANY
David H. Koch Theater
20 Lincoln Center Plaza at 63rd St.
Jan. 6-7 at 8 p.m.; Jan. 8 at 2 p.m.
Tickets $25-$149; davidkochtheater.com