The Peony Pavilion is an intricate classical Ming Dynasty tale about love lost and found and the story of The Peony Pavilion has now been brought to the dance stage by National Ballet of China. They are performing exclusively in Australia with National Ballet of China Symphony Orchestra for five performances only at the Arts Centre Melbourne.  Thanks to the Arts Centre I was invited to attend the opening night.<

I had previously seen the National Ballet of China perform in Melbourne and was most impressed by the company’s technique, lyricism and flow, as well as their sumptuous costumes and sets (considering they were travelling from China). This production is no different.

I think two factors make the ballets from the China different from the productions from Western ballet companies, despite Chinese ballet companies evolving their style from Russian ballet traditions.

Firstly there’s the melding of East and West in the music and staging. In this case, the score included the bowing of the erhu (a Chinese stringed instrument) and the clanging of symbols to highlight dramatic tension as in Chinese opera. On stage a female Chinese opera singer interspersed the dancing with her high lilting sung narrative, traditionally affected gestures and floating gait.

Secondly, the homogeneity of the dancers is quite notable. Naturally all of the dancers have dark hair and dark eyes and slender fine-boned limbs but from afar the women in the corps de ballet were all the same height and same body shape (as were the men I think but the effect was less striking). When the dancers moved in a tight mass in unison the effect was very impressive.

Besides the obvious agility, lightness and delicate strength of the dancers I was particularly struck by the simple staging – they could have gone the route of Chinese opera gilt but have opted for bold lighting and the dramatic sweep of a calligraphers pen, an oversize hanging willow bough and a central suspended platform adjusted to great effect. The corps de ballet costumes were similarly simple yet beautiful – lots of chiffon and silks wafting and billowing on lithe limbs, just beautiful to watch.

You don’t really need to understand the inner workings of the story behind The Peony Pavilion to appreciate the ballet and in fact after reading and re-reading the program notes I was no more knowledgeable about the plot. The story has been described as the Chinese version of Romeo and Juliet – shorthand for a tragic romance between young lovers. Though in this case there’s a neat deus ex machina ending clearing away the tragedy – apparently the traditional Chinese opera version of the story runs for 20 hours so you’d hope there’d be some happiness at the end of it. The ballet’s dramatic ending procession marked with the beautiful flower fall was the highlight of the show for me.

Whether or not you like Chinese folk tales or Chinese opera, if you like ballet you will love the beauty and artistry of The Peony Pavilion. Get a taste for the spectacle by watching this trailer or check out The Age’s lovely photo gallery.

The Peony Pavilion, National Ballet of China, State Theatre

15 – 18 March