Modern version of age-old Chinese classic

Ma Yue
When choreographer Yang Liping took the ancient Chinese story "Farewell My Concubine"  to the dance stage, it was given a more contemporary and international interpretation.
Ma Yue
SSI ļʱ

The ancient Chinese story "Farewell My Concubine" has been told in many different forms, including as a traditional opera and movie. But when choreographer Yang Liping took it to the dance stage six years ago, the story was given a more contemporary and international interpretation.

Yang's "Under Siege: The Full Story of Farewell My Concubine" was created under the commission of the Shanghai International Arts Festival in 2015. The experimental work combined contemporary dance with Peking Opera and other Chinese folk arts like shadow puppets and paper cutting.

The creation featured some of the country's top visual and stage artists, including Hong Kong-based art director Yip Kam-tim, who is best known for his work on Ang Lee's film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

Yang brought "Under Siege" back to Shanghai this week. All tickets for the four performances at Shanghai Oriental Art Center were sold out weeks ago.

Modern version of age-old Chinese classic
Ding Yijie / Ti Gong

Liu Bang in the dance "Under Siege: The Full Story of Farewell My Concubine

"Compared to the 2015 version, the story has been condensed to reach a higher artistic accuracy," said Yang. "Over the years, the actors have been studying the roles and improving their performances. As the director, I have been observing audiences' reactions, making improvements to enhance the work's connection with the audiences."

"Farewell My Concubine" tells the story of Xiang Yu, the self-styled "Hegemon-King of Western Chu" who battled for the unification of China with Liu Bang, the eventual founder of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). Xiang is surrounded by Liu's forces and on the verge of total defeat. Realizing the dire situation, Xiang's wife Consort Yu begs to die alongside her master, but Xiang strongly refuses this wish. Afterward, as he is distracted, Yu commits suicide with Xiang's sword.

One of the most distinguishing features of Yang's creation is that young male dancer Hu Shenyuan performs the role of Consort Yu. Hu has been known for his flexible and soft movements that nevertheless demand enormous strength and emotion.

"You can find both men's and women's characteristics in Hu," said Yang. "It echoes the nandan roles in Peking Opera when men play female roles."

Hu has his own understanding of the role of Consort Yu.

Modern version of age-old Chinese classic
Li Yijian / Ti Gong

In battle scenes of the dance, the stage is filled with red feathers that symbolize blood.

"Despite the familiarity of the story, we can't find many references, especially paintings and pictures, to Consort Yu," said Hu. "Therefore, I have to imagine the role myself. Instead of imitating a woman, I think about what this role symbolizes."

"On the brutal battle field, she is the only character wearing red, which symbolizes warmth and beauty," he added. "She has a very strong mind, allowing her to accompany Xiang until the last moment. I have to show audiences her unbending personality."

When dealing with the role of General Han Xin who betrays Xiang and goes off to Liu, Yang has two dancers appear on stage at the same time, with one presenting the bright side of Han and the other the dark side.

"We have the colors of back and white in Chinese philosophy representing yin and yang. We also have the two colors in chess pieces of go. The two dancers, wearing white and black respectively, present the complexity of human nature," Yang said.

Modern version of age-old Chinese classic
Ti Gong

When dealing with the role of General Han Xin who betrays Xiang and goes off to Liu, Yang has two dancers appear on stage at the same time, with one presenting the bright side of Han and the other the dark side.

In addition to the character setting, "Under Siege" features unique stage designs.

More than 10,000 pairs of scissors hang over the stage to create an extremely tense atmosphere. In battle scenes, the stage is filled with red feathers that symbolize blood. Shadow puppets and paper cutting also add to the oriental flavor of the work.

"When commissioned by the Shanghai International Arts Festival, I was told the work is expected to represent Chinese aesthetics. It would be performed overseas and allow foreign spectators to learn about China's dance art and culture," said Yang. "Over the years, we have been receiving full-star reviews from international audiences."

Yang said "Under Siege" is a tribute to traditional Chinese culture, which is a very different creation from her previous works.

"I used to center only on myself and choreograph dances according to the observations I made of nature," said Yang. "But in 'Under Siege,' each dancer has his own specialty, like kungfu and street dance. As the chief director, I figure out their potential and match their skills with the appropriate characters."

Modern version of age-old Chinese classic
Ti Gong

Shadow puppets and paper cutting also add to the oriental flavor of the work.

Yang, now in her early 60s, has been recognized as one of China's most eminent dancers.

As a dancer and choreographer of Bai ethnicity, Yang's artistic style has been largely influenced by her love for nature and folk culture.

"Not many ethnic dancers have studied in dance schools, but we all have observed nature closely," said Yang. "We observe peacocks, dragonflies and watch ants move. Dance is also an important part of our celebrations and ceremonies. For us, dance is about vitality instead of skills."

Modern version of age-old Chinese classic
Ti Gong

Choreographer Yang Liping (front in red) greets the audience.

In 1986, Yang's premiere of "Spirit of the Peacock" at the Second National Dance Competition won her a gold medal for best performance. She has been dubbed the "Peacock Princess of China."

She was also the director and choreographer of the grand original dance play "Yunnan Reflections," which portrays the natural wonder and cultural legacy of the ethnic groups in Yang's beloved hometown Yunnan.

She retired from the stage as a dancer about 20 years ago, but remains popular among the country's dance followers.

After the Shanghai performances, "Under Siege" will travel around the country.

Modern version of age-old Chinese classic
Ti Gong

When Yang Liping took the ancient Chinese story "Farewell My Concubine" to the dance stage, it was given a more contemporary and international interpretation.

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