In an elegant tulle dress, she backs on stage, hunched and creeping. The articulate movements of her arms and upper body are filled with tension, the occasional convulsion resounding through her body. Upstage, under a cold spotlight, stands a lady clothed in a burnt orange gown, her gaze sad and distant. A man enters and dances between these two women. Against the steadily pulsating music the slow, drawn out movements of the trio have a sorrowful air. Each dancer appears absorbed in their individual world, yet there is a sense that these characters are intrinsically connected—a story waiting to unfold.
The opening of Shanghai Ballet’s “Echoes of Eternity” is pure and picturesque. A tale of love and loss, it is based on a poem by Bai Juyi, The Song of Everlasting Regret, composed in the year 806, which tells the tragic love story of the Emperor Ming (Wu Husheng) and his concubine Lady Yang (dancer Qi Bingxue, the woman in the orange gown). In Chinese legend it was a love that led to the downfall of the Tang dynasty.
Following their production of “Jane Eyre,” performed at the London Coliseum in 2013, Patrick de Bana is once again the choreographer behind this production, bringing the Shanghai Ballet back to London as part of the Coliseum’s Shanghai Season—which also included the Shanghai Opera Company’s “Thunderstorm.”
The first act of “Echoes of Eternity” is set in the palace. An imperial army rush on stage in silence; the shuffle of feet and flap of silk robes providing an atmospheric accompaniment to their opening dance. As the movement gathers speed, the energy builds and the music recommences—a soundtrack of Eastern tones and classical strings presented within a Western soundscape.
At their first meeting, a single look from the Emperor transforms Lady Yang’s sad, distant gaze into smiles and charm and, in their first pas de deux, Bingxue slowly revolving beneath Husheng’s arms, her leg pressed against his chest in a high attitude arabesque, de Bana perfectly captures the refined, intimate connection between the lovers. In these instances of legato movement, de Bana’s choreography, and the dancers interpretation of it, is simply exquisite.
When used to the rush of Western contemporary movement, it takes time to adjust to the slow-moving sections of choreography that permeate “Echoes of Eternity,” and the use of recorded music does little to help. The music ebbs and at times dies, jarring with the calm flow of the choreography. The lack of an orchestra is distinctly felt, with the subtle dynamics of live music essential to achieving the delicacy needed here.
Yet, before long, the regal, mystical quality of this work prevails. The dancers of the Shanghai Ballet, in particular its three principles, dance with passion and emotion yet, at the same time, their movement is touched with dignity and restraint, and in this they attain a mesmerising serenity.
If any reservations remained, the second act blows these away. The palace is gone, replaced by a backdrop of storm clouds. The movement and music likewise become more tumultuous. Hints of a more European contemporary style can be seen in de Bana’s choreography as a corps of male dancers lunge, leap and rapidly switch direction in a battle between two armies. Yet, as before, the Shanghai Ballet maintain a stately elegance. It lends an otherworldly touch to the battle that plays out before us, as if an ancient force is presiding over the human fates of the Emperor and Lady Yang.
It’s an impression emphasised by the sprite-like presence of dancer Zhao Hanbing, the white-tulled, creeping figure of the opening prelude. Denoted in the programme as the Moon Fairy she is a dream-like persona, appearing when the Emperor sleeps or drifting into scene like an ever-present figure at the edge of ones consciousness. The elegance of Hanbing’s movement is combined with an animalistic, skeletal edge that affords her character a disturbing quality.
The vagueness of this work’s narrative can at times be difficult to follow, but that matters little. Like poetry, de Bana’s choreography paints a visual impression of its story. Images leap out of the army circling at speed, two slow moving figures at their centre (in the first instance this is the Emperor and Lady Yang, in the second it is two commanders engaged in combat); silhouetted bodies that appear distant and ethereal, the Emperor reaching out for Yang’s absent form … They all contribute to the atmospheric image de Bana builds, but it is the prelude and ending which remain etched in the mind.
Once again the three principals dance slow, delicate movements beneath their separate spotlights, yet now their connected fates are tangible. They seem to luxuriate in their movement and, combined with the plangent music and the sadness of their expressions, creates something achingly beautiful.
The real tug comes as principals Bingxue and Husheng draw the work to a close in an image echoing the opening. The two lovers dance a touching reminder of their first meeting, Yang’s leg resting against the Emperor’s chest as, beneath a flurry of falling snow (or perhaps blossom) they spin and twist within each others arms. In the closing moments of this gorgeously poignant work, the binding ties of eternity reverberate.