Among The Peony Pavilion‘s 55 scenes, one of the sweetest is surely “Making Love With a Ghost.” The highly corporeal spirit of a Chinese lady, released from Hell, finds the lover she has met only in dreams. Like its heroine, the Ming-dynasty Kunju opera has been rescued from oblivion by the power of love. Through devoted labor, scholarly research, and bold but respectful reinterpretation of ancient traditions, director Chen Shi-Zheng and his colleagues staged a Chinese classic unknown in its entirety for perhaps 400 years. This production for the Lincoln Center Festival is also a reincarnation; the one slated for last summer’s Festival was scratched when a disapproving cultural czar refused to let the Shanghai Kunju Opera Company leave China.
Like the besotted Du Liniang as played by Qian Yi (she and flute player Zhou Ming are the only recruits from the Shanghai production), the opera emerges from darkness spectacularly beautiful. I say this with confidence although I only managed to see Episodes 3 and 4, spending a little under seven hours of an estimated 20 gazing on the magnificent carved wood pavilions that designer Huang Hai Wei has built out over the fishpond housed in La Guardia Concert Hall’s orchestra pit. Ducks erupt in a scuffle of wings when bandits wield their swords. Pairs of caged canaries keep up a sweet twittering. And, thanks to costume designer Cheng Shu Yi and many seamstresses in China, the ghost-girl has a stunning wardrobe.
The epic work by Tang Xianzu (1550–1616) mixes dialogue, instrumental music, singing, stylized movement, acrobatics, low comedy, and elegant poetry. A judge of Hell (Yu Qing Wang) with a superb painted face does a Marx-brother jump into the arms of his minions at the sight of Du Liniang’s beauty, but offers a disquisition on flowers and their properties before rendering judgment. The hero’s rescue from a frozen river is full of comedic mishaps punctuated by cymbal and woodblock, but, once recovered and wandering in a deserted garden, this young scholar, Liu Mengmei (Wen Yu Hang), is moved to sing a long, brooding falsetto aria about the erosion of beauty and order. Du, the willowy ghost who glides with tiny rapid steps, swirling her long sleeves as she and her lover circle and crisscross in delicate foreplay, is so fragile that a petal falling on her head and interrupting an erotic dream causes her to sicken and die. Yet she can be forthright; “Dig me up,” she orders her stupefied beloved. “There are only three feet of earth between us.” (At least, so the supertitles say.) To reanimate the body, a lusty nun—wonderfully played by Lin Sen, a man—concocts a potion from the crotch of a strong man’s underwear (you can imagine the scene), but the resurrection is spookily beautiful and poignant.
The production utilizes familiar Chinese Opera traditions: visible stagehands move furniture and hand out props; carrying a whip indicates a character is riding a donkey. But Chen has also resurrected an older custom of mixing puppets with live actors, and Hell features a grindstone straight out of Hieronymus Bosch, with a feebly kicking pair of legs sticking out of it. Twenty-one skilled performers manage the opera’s more than 160 roles. The two adorable young principals excel in the traditional vocal techniques that encompass round tones, whines, dainty shrieks, and quiet quaverings;
they’ve also mastered the physical training that, for example, enables Wen to give the illusion that a fierce snowstorm is blasting him backward. High drama, eroticism, comedy, rich characters, action…too bad we can’t tune in to The Peony Pavilion as we would to a Masterpiece Theater series; a couple of hours a week, and the millennium would be upon us.
Speaking of Y2K, another Festival offering, Jiri Kylian’s One of a Kind, for his Nederlands Dans Theater I, swells the body of dances that, 50 years hence, may well be discussed in terms of millennial dread. They can come from just about any country boasting ballet or modern dance companies. You know them: stunning technological sets, maybe with doors that slam on nothingness or grids that descend; lights that glare or imprison the dancers in white shafts; shattering electronic scores. In these surreal landscapes suggesting abandoned public places, men and women in dark clothes throng stoically, their dancing wrenching, their gazes forlorn.
It’s interesting to see Kylian, who has made so many dances about beautiful, earthily idyllic communities, enter this world. The three-part work’s raison d’être and its affect are strangely at odds. Commissioned for the 150th anniversary of the Dutch Constitution, One of a Kind‘s structure embodies democracy (the dancers contributed to the creative process) and individuality (there are virtually no large group sections). But what we see onstage is struggle, dissatisfaction, women dominated by men, and isolation. Cora Bos-Kroese sets the tone (she never stops dancing, even during intermissions) as she labors to cross the white zigzag path that sensational set designer Atsushi Kitagawara has laid across the New York State Theater’s pit. Her ascension of a black staircase at the end of Act III offers an unexpected morsel of hope—as do the sweet Gesualdo madrigals that surface under the roar and whine of Brett Dean’s score, or onstage cellist Pieter Wispelwey’s battles with electronic echoes of his bowing. Like Bos-Kroese, the other dancers who appear by ones or twos twitch their limbs into a jagged geometry—tangles and lurches rendered with uncanny precision. We see many variations on the thrust of a quivering leg, on arms that seem to swat at a swarm of insects. When still, people lurk in the crevices of geometric hills.
Kylian being a masterful choreographer, this deadly dancing is thrilling: people seem to be angrily taking their bodies apart, inventorying items at top speed. In Act II, when a huge suspended gold cone revolves, laying a sweep-hand of black shadow on the floor, a couple of the men, Urtzi Aranburu and Joeri de Korte, explode in brief, unforgettable solos. All the dancers are equally powerful, beautiful, individual, and, given the supposed image of freedom, I’m disconcerted how often Kylian has a man come up behind a woman, grasp her waist, sweep her up, and put her down somewhere else before pressing her
into knotty designs. “Ah, yes,” those future cultural historians will say, “they really were desperate about gender then, weren’t they?”
Ronald K. Brown has a whole hot stew of messages to deliver about African American identity, violence, and spirituality. Ebony Magazine, one of the two pieces his company showed at Jacob’s Pillow and will perform Saturday in a free 7:30 concert at the Prospect Park Bandshell, urges people to seek a deeper sense of identity than glossy magazine images provide; the other, Better Days, tells us that four men (Brown, Taurus Broadhurst, Arcell Cabuag, and Telly Fowler) can bond through vibrant dancing and unashamed tenderness. A Jacob’s Pillow premiere, Water—to terrific music by Fahali Igbo and text by Cheryl Boyce Taylor (delivered live by the
poet)—speaks more directly of channeling the energy young men waste in violence into more positive pride, community, and peaceful vigor.
Brown doesn’t tell literal stories; he wants dancing, I think, to express the shape and force of ideas. His pieces bubble over, as if he’d tried to stuff too much into one pot, but I’m gripped by the rawness, sweetness, and seriousness of his invention. In Water, the simple act of removing bloodstained outer garments, washing in small basins, and donning clean clothes (by Wunmi Olaiya) has a poetic rightness. In Ebony Magazine, his women (Pofina Williams, Dierdre Dawkins, Celise L. Hicks, and Angelica Patterson) wickedly send up posturing beauties and celebrity hostesses, but, like the men, get down with the sheer pleasure of the swinging, buoyant, juicy, African-influenced dancing that says, better than any words: freedom, strength, health, joy.