Yang Liping's vision of the climactic battle between Chu and Han armies. Image courtesy of Sadler's Wells.
REVIEW: Yang Liping Contemporary Dance — Under Siege
Much like ancient Rome, story has it that China was founded on fratricide and betrayal. The foundation myth focused on two great personalities – Xiang Yu of the Chu faction and Liu Bang of the Han. Once brothers in arms, they overthrew the tyrannical and short-lived Qin dynasty in 206 BC. Yet soon after their success they found themselves embroiled in a four year-long war of domination. Liu Bang won the struggle through deceit and trickery and became the first emperor of Han China. This is a tale that has been retold and reinterpreted countless times in every medium imaginable, but it was Yang Liping who brought it to the western world in her contemporary dance reinterpretation – Under Siege.
It was here on the stage of Sadler’s Wells that old tale was imbued with new life: countless pairs of scissors suspended in the air, representing the crossed blades of the Chu and Han faction; generals scheme and pawns march to their death. Amidst the chaos stands a couple – the general Xiang Yu and his concubine – separated by war and reunited only in death; the warlord Han Xin struggles with split personalities, waging an internal war against his darker side; and Liu Bang desires emperorship no matter the cost. The final scene relives the historic ambush: bodies roll and twitch in a stage covered by red feathers. A bloodbath. Liu Bang of the Han emerges as victor, but at who remains to celebrate?
Critics unanimously lavished praises on the show for its choreography, its spectacular set, music score, and costume designs. What a spectacle to behold! However, they were not completely satisfied. The Guardian, in particular, gave the performance three stars out of five. Its author criticized the show for focusing too much on conjuring a spectacle and lacking as a result in character development and emotional depth. Added to this is the accusation that the show, being devised for a Chinese audience, made little effort in immersing their British patrons at the Sadler’s Wells; that viewers were unable to follow the narrative of the show. Lyndsey Winship at the Evening Standard, too, felt a sense of alienation, writing that the show was a ‘(lengthy) ritual rather than a conversation with the subject matter…not a natural mode for all audiences.’
As members of a western audience foreign to Chinese theatre it is no surprise that the critics favored the ‘exotic’: acrobatic backflips, outlandish costumes and unusual music. And being accustomed to seeing expressionist dance and theatre they naturally downplayed the modern, expressionist aspects of Under Siege. But to me Yang’s real achievement is the creation of a seamless fusion of traditional and contemporary elements of performance art. And as a performance that bridges traditional Chinese with western contemporary ideas, it serves as the perfect window into classical Chinese performance arts.
Though advertised as ‘contemporary Chinese Dance’ Under Siege is a melting pot of diverse forms of traditional art. The show began with classical music rolling out from the zither and the pipa, canonical instruments of traditional music. The narrator, a descendant from a famous family of Chinese Opera performers, chanted a short narrative to set the scene. A paper cutter sat on a corner of the stage for the entirety of the show, painstakingly cutting out characters that signalled the arrival of new characters or a change of scene. The dancers themselves – many of whom were clad in traditionally-inspired sumptuous robes – performed routines highly influenced by martial arts and Peking Opera. The very fact that so many disparate media of art were squeezed into a single performance is in itself an innovative feat.
But Yang and her team did no stop at the collation of traditional media; they went further to instil these with contemporary ideas. The choreography, though based on martial arts and Opera movements, drew heavily on hip hop and achieved fluid, expressive, even percussive bodily movements simply unseen in traditional forms of dance. Costume design, too, broke free from traditional confines: Visual Director Tim Yip, who won a British Film Academy award for his costumes in the film Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, creating a set of outfits more akin to Yohji Yamamoto couture than attires found in historical drama television. Through these the team created world where one transitions seamlessly from the traditional and contemporary,
Most pioneering of all was the music scoring of the show. The pipa and zither lead instruments of the performance, and often the music is uncompromisingly classical. These instruments were especially adept at producing a string of notes that mimic a gently flowing river. But at times of dramatic tension the fluidity is abruptly interrupted; more and more notes coming pouring out, building up to a crescendo. At climatic moments performers actually scratched the strings, producing deeply harrowing screams that echo the emotional anxiety depicted on stage. The instruments whose sounds I once knew suddenly seemed utterly foreign and, turning from gentle arpeggio into shrieking furies, ensnared me. Just as the ‘troops’ on stage were caught in an ambush I too felt alienated and overwhelmed.
Under Siege’s directors have no doubt succeeded in the fusion of traditional and contemporary media and styles of art; but what about the ideals and substance behind theatre? Have they managed to infuse ideas of Chinese dance with those of contemporary Europe? What struck critics and audience alike most was the monumentality of the show. It was almost as if Yang’s team had an exaggerated scale of measurement for theatre compared to the west – everything from costume to music to choreography shared a sumptuousness and grandeur rarely seen in contemporary dance.
The pursuit of monumental display likely began at the royal court as a means of visual display of power. The Chinese emperors, monopolising resources over a huge territory, took conspicuous display to unprecedented heights. Obsession with monumental display continued into the modern day and is seen in the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which constituted perhaps the most significant attempt by the Chinese government to impress the rest of the world. In order to choreograph a show that required thousands of performers to act as one the government called in disciplined soldiers as actors. The sheer scale of the cast marks out the Chinese Olympics from the British 2012 or Rio 2016 ceremonies which came after.
The contemporary pursuit of sumptuous display, developing in a pseudo-Communist capitalist world, gave rise to an utterly peculiar form of stage performance. Literally ‘large-scale real-scenic performances’, these things comprise of colossal outdoor stages fixed onto natural hills, which act as the background of the performance. Always installed in tourist locations, these performances feature a huge group of casts (often in the hundreds), most of whom simply flip around or wave in the distant backdrop. They generally take on a local folklore and accompany it with music, acrobatics and a lot of flashing lights. In reality these constitute more business ventures rather than artistic performances: more circus than theatre. But ticket sales suggest the popularity of these shows with the public.
It is this for this audience and tradition that Yang devised her contemporary dance performance. In an interview she remarked that the Chinese audience is not yet ready for something completely abstract, and that a traditional theme (and perhaps traditional ways of performance?) are required to carry the contemporary message. In this respect Yang’s own performance is another level of deception – a hidden blade concealed in familiar clothing. Certain scenes, focusing on one or two individuals on stage, clearly attempt to imbue a spectacle with substance and soul. One particularly poignant scene was the duet between the general and his concubine; the concubine, having learned of the general’s defeat, chose to commit suicide instead of watching him fall. The lovers dance out a beautiful last embrace, sharing one last longing look, before they are forever parted by death. The finale, where naked bodies representing the dead roll around in a pool of blood, is monumental yet tragic. The general beholds the writing bodies surrounding him, let out a cry of indignation, and commits suicide. The hanging scissors crash onto the stage. Lights go out and silence descends. Fin.
What Yang really wanted to convey was the pacifist idea that ‘love and loyalty are always sacrificed in the horror of war,’ a theme all the more relevant in our current world, as war in the Middle East and the ensuing refugee crisis shake the western world. Yet it may be precisely Yang’s choice of the historical narrative that prevented the message from really coming through. The story of the Chu-Han contention after all serves to justify the establishment of the Han dynasty, a dynasty as much mythicized by Chinese as the Roman Empire is by Europeans. Was Yang suggesting that Liu Bang had been morally in the wrong and that beginning of imperial China was thus illegitimate? Or was she implying that war is a necessary evil, that in order to create a unified Chinese state, betrayal was justified? This indecision between justification and condemnation is equally visible in the show’s choreography. In a nearly two-hour long performance only two scenes explicitly depicted the horrors of war – those of the massacre and the love lost; on the hand the choreography with its martial arts and acrobatic fighting seem to romanticise rather than undermine war. At least that seems to be the idea shared by friends and critics.
Under Siege is a complex show deeply rooted in Chinese traditions, which requires an understanding of local culture to interpret. Though only just premiering in the west, the show has played over four hundred times in China. Yang succeeded in translating western contemporary dance to the Chinese audience, but could this also be said for the other direction? The most common reaction to the show in London is no doubt confusion – caused both by the exotic and dramatized performance as well as the absence of a clear narrative and development. The show hardly helped itself in appealing to a western audience, having foregone subtitles or pre-performance announcement on the story. The programme is beautifully produced and contains useful information, but is not included in the ticket. There is nothing to help the English audience other than small screens mounted on walls at both ends of the stage; but they only translate the characters produced of the paper cutter, and often very badly. One does wonder whether Yang had intended for the show to be viewed by a western audience at all. The Evening Standard isn’t misplaced to call the show ‘impenetrable’. A possible audience she had in mind was perhaps the large group of Chinese expats studying or working in Europe who, with their experience of both western and Chinese cultures, are well equipped to fully understand and appreciate the show.
To me, what really matters was Yang’s decision to bring this show out of China. Over the past century China had constantly been the importer of foreign artistic styles, like so many other non-western states it had been the recipient of western cultural imperialism. Today, as an economic powerhouse, China is becoming more aware and confident of its own traditions. The nation is on the brink of a cultural renaissance. There is a chance for Chinese culture to be accepted abroad on its own terms, rather than being experienced through the tinted lenses of orientalism or chinoiserie. Yang should be viewed as a vanguard in exporting a contemporised version Chinese culture overseas. The lack of adequate translations, likely the result of an oversight, could nevertheless be interpreted as a challenge to the European audience, confronting them to deal with the unknown. Hopefully the audience’s confusion will lead not to their rejection of the show but to a curiosity and desire to know more about the culture on which Under Siege is based; because there will be plenty more Chinese shows coming this way.