It’s show time again, literally. I have two performances this week I’m attending. The first one was Under Siege by the Yang LiPing Contemporary Dance Company. It is part of the Explore Festival, wherein seven theaters in the Netherlands band together to program a few foreign shows for a small tour. The idea is to pick things form outside western society and to give us a glimpse of the (modern) art that is made there. And then specifically not in a way to exoticise it, but to break stereotypes and let us open our minds to other ways of thinking and seeing. And in that realising that within, were not that different.
On the whole I have two words for it: fucking magnificent.
The performance transcends just dance, it becomes dance theatre. Telling a coherent story in an uninterrupted hour and forty minutes adding in live music and narration. The dancers in the company come from all kinds of dance backgrounds. Some from the very traditional Beijing Opera, some from more martial arts inspired forms, some form classical ballet and some from modern contemporary dance. All these forms are used throughout the performance.
The story is that of war and conquest where one dynasty is about to be superseded by another in China two thousand years ago. There’s a group of dancers playing soldiers, two emperors, the chief advisor to one of them and the concubine of the other. Plus two musicians, the narrator and the paper cutting lady.
This lady sits at the edge of the stage during the entire show cutting things out of paper. Sometimes Chinese characters to serve as marker or narration, sometimes shapes. The narrator actually speaks. He tells us the story, in Chinese. Luckily there’s two screens to the sides that give basic translations of what he’s saying.
The flow of the story takes us from the beginnings of war all the way to end with the last man standing. We see meetings between the one emperor and his advisor, between the other emperor and the advisor, between the first emperor and his dark side. These are all striking duo dance performances, very physical towards each other.
Then there’s mass dances when battles are performed. These incorporate Kung Fu moves with a lot of jumps and kicks.
The concubine gets to do a solo piece. Taking their cue from the Beijng Operatic tradition, she is played by a man. The solo follows her from entering near naked through being dressed until fully dressed and dancing. This is a more stilted piece, but as such it has a commanding presence.
After the main battles and confrontations it is time for the climax. The stage is covered in red feathers to signify the final battlefield. A mass battle is ‘fought’ resulting in basically mass slaughter for the army of the one emperor. Knowing there is no way they’ll get out of it alive, he meets with his concubine one last time. In a moving, and haunting, performance, they say goodbye and then she kills herself. Grief stricken the emperor holds her before leaving to face his final battle.
And in that final battle, he succumbs to the other emperor, who then gets killed by his advisor. Leaving him the sole survivor and new emperor of a new dynasty.
In between all these dance pieces the narrator appears to inform us of what is going on in a flowing Chinese that varies from talking to shouting to a certain sing song quality.
The stage design was elaborate without being overbearing. On the ceiling were four large blocks holding thousands of (fake) scissors. These would move about during the show, and sometimes come down to stage level. Other than this, the background was basic. The soldiers and narrator were likewise basic. The emperors wore intricately decorated garments, but with a basic shape. The only other points of extravagance were the head pieces worn by the advisor and the other emperor, and the outfit of the other emperor during his solo.
I spent the entirety of the performance on the edge of my seat, wholly captivated by what I was seeing. I’ve been taken in by a performance before, but never in such a manner. In China, Yang LiPing is a celebrity with several theaters. This show there is done with a multitude of performers more. Maybe one day I’ll be able to see it like that.
Before the show I attended the introduction which told us a bit more about Yang LiPing and the company, about the story and about how the show came to be. Especially since they had to make a special travel version of it to be able to take it on tour.
Afterwards there was a small interview with two of the dancers. That being the concubine and her emperor. It was tricky as they only spoke Chinese, the interpreter spoke decent english but heavily accented so sometimes hard to follow, and the lady doing the interview wasn’t much better in english either. So I didn’t really get a lot out of it, but it was clear to see that the guy playing the emperor was really passionate about dance and the show.
I didn’t catch their names, but I understand both of them are award winning dancers in China. That I believe right away. The performances of all four main characters were fantastic, but the losing Emperor especially stood out. His control over his body is amazing.
In the picture below, the black person in the middle is dark side of the winning emperor. On his left the advisor, the losing emperor, the concubine, the winning emperor and the narrator.