The stage is set

Updated: 2011-04-22 10:21

By Chen Jie (China Daily European Weekly)

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The stage is set

The Edinburgh International Festival will have a Chinese flavor this year, as three of the country's leading companies will make their debuts

Three of China's leading arts companies will debut at the prestigious Edinburgh International Festival this summer. National Ballet of China (NBC) will perform its original production, Peony Pavilion, a ballet adaptation of the 400-year-old, 20-hour-long Chinese Kunqu Opera; Shanghai Peking Opera Troupe will retell the familiar tale of Hamlet, setting it in China and giving it an acrobatic and elaborately costumed Peking Opera treatment; while Taiwan's Contemporary Legend Theater will deconstruct another Shakespeare story, King Lear, into a one man tour de force by the celebrated actor Wu Hsing-kuo.

Pianist Li Yundi, guitarist Yang Xuefei and New York-based Chinese choreographer Shen Wei - who co-created the Opening Ceremony for the Beijing Olympics - will perform; while the music of composer Tan Dun, Bright Sheng and Chen Yi will also feature at the festival.

The strong Chinese presence is part of the Scottish capital festival's celebration of Asia's culture and its influence on the West.

"European artists, explorers and philosophers have drawn inspiration from the Far East for centuries," says Jonathan Mills, director of the Edinburgh International Festival.

"Our program this year builds bridges between the cultures of Asia and Europe. It is inspired by artistic links and shared influences between China and Europe that span centuries, and by the desire to build new connections between our cultures and communities.


The stage is set

Peony Pavilion sees a Western classical ballet and symphony orchestra arrangement combined with a quintessentially Chinese story. Photos provided to China Daily

"I hope that lovers of music, dance, theater, opera and visual arts from across China will join us in Edinburgh this summer to enjoy the festival and experience first hand their influence on the culture of the world."

Mills' vision dates back to 2007 when he discussed with Zhao Ruheng, NBC's former president, about the possibility of bringing an original Chinese ballet to the festival.

In 2008, Zhao commissioned composer Guo Wenjing, director Li Liuyi and the company's young choreographer Fei Bo, to adapt Peony Pavilion. Written by Tang Xianzu (1550-1616), one of China's greatest writers and a contemporary of Shakespeare, it is one of the most famous love stories in Chinese literature.

Rewritten by director Li, the two-scene ballet describes how the beautiful Du Liniang falls asleep by the peony pavilion and dreams of Liu Mengmei, a lover she has never met. She wakes in despair and asks the Flower Goddess to find her love.

Unable to find him, Du dies of a broken heart and is forced to turn to the Infernal Judges of the Underworld for help.

Composer Guo Wenjing creates an enchanting and passionate original score, incorporating references to Debussy's Daphnis et Chloe, Holst's The Planets and Prokofiev's Scythian Suite.

Guo was among the first generation of Chinese composers to systematically study Western music at Beijing's Central Conservatory of Music, after 10 years of "cultural revolution" (1966-76).

He says the most difficult elements of the ballet are the two pas de deux between Du and Liu. One is the first scene in which the lovers embrace in the dream and the other is the last scene in which the ghost of Du makes love with the living Liu.

"It was so hard to write the music because I neither make love in dreams nor with ghosts," he says jokingly.

The show has an impressive and modern setting, by the German designer Michael Simon, and flowing costumes by Emi Wada.

The premiere in May 2008, in Beijing, received mixed reviews. Some conservative critics did not like the contemporary work and said the choreography was banal. They did not understand why choreographer Fei adds a flower goddess, which does not exist in the play, and a Kunqu Opera performer who represents another face of Du.

But its revival at the Hong Kong Arts Festival in February 2010 was widely acclaimed. Mills saw the show in Beijing in May 2010 and decided to take it to Edinburgh.

"I love the ballet very much. It's an interesting combination of Western classical ballet, a classic symphony orchestra, traditional Chinese instruments and a quintessentially Chinese story, which demonstrates the ideas and ambitions of our Festival 2011."

Mills also gave Fei some suggestions to improve the choreography and make clearer the relation between Du, the Flower Goddess and the Kunqu Opera-styled Du.

It is the 31-year-old choreographer Fei's first full-length ballet. After graduating from Beijing Dance Academy in 2002, Fei joined the NBC as its first and only full-time choreographer.

The stage is set 

Composer Guo Wenjing creates an original score for the ballet. Jiang Dong / China Daily

The contemporary dance-trained choreographer has created many short pieces for NBC's dancers to perform at international competitions.

His Memory won the Best Choreographer prize at the Helsinki International Ballet Competition in 2005.

Using Fei, who is relatively unknown, underscores NBC's courage and ambition to develop its own young choreographers.

As China's best and one of the world's leading ballet companies, NBC has invited many internationally established choreographers to create for it.

"Our most important mission is to create original Chinese ballet and develop our own choreographers," says its current president Feng Ying. "A ballet company's development depends on its ability to create."

To discover, encourage and promote choreography from within the company, Feng instituted an annual workshop after taking up her position in 2010.

In three weeks last April, two European choreographers were invited to work with four of NBC's young dancers and their works were well received at two performances.

This year, eight dancers including the principals Li Jun, who performs Liu in Peony Pavilion, and Yu Bo, joined the workshop.

"I performed a piece choreographed by a young colleague last year. I was impressed by the innovation and deeply encouraged, so I decided to give it a try this year," Yu says.

The fruits of this year's three-week workshop will be showcased in two performances, at Tianqiao Theater on April 23 and 24.

After that NBC will perform the revised Peony Pavilion at Tianqiao Theater in Beijing on April 28 to 30, before it sets off to Edinburgh in August.


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