The Guangdong Acrobatic Troupe of China's Swan Lake is either sacrilege or a bracing slap to the face of classical ballet. I see no reason why it can't be both. Watching it performed at Covent Garden is like that moment in the first Batman movie when Jack Nicholson's Joker marches into the Gotham Art Museum and announces, "Gentlemen, let's broaden our minds...", before desecrating everything.
The aesthetic can be summed up by Wu Zhengdan's entrance and exit as the Swan Princess on either side of the Adagio – considered one of the most meltingly lyrical scenes in ballet. She arrives across a tight rope, walking on pointe and distantly pursued by monkeys. When she departs, hypnotised by a black eagle's spell and leaving Wei Baohua's prince lovelorn on the shore, there is a sudden storm of feathers, as if she's flown straight into the engine of a 747.
Between these giddy peaks of tastelessness she hides herself within a demolition derby of roller-skating swans, wisely absents herself while four frogs do handstands to the music of the cygnets' dance, and shows her affection for the prince by standing in arabesque on his shoulder, then later, even more impressively, on his head.
This Swan Lake would cause less offence if Wei and Wu were poorer dancers – and would be spectacular if they were better. Their technique is approximate enough to provide an awkward reminder that there is a "real" Swan Lake, which doesn't need contortionists, jugglers or trampolinists to enthral. Yet each pang of guilt at enjoying such infantile pleasures is swiftly dismissed by a fresh gaudy lollipop.
In the National Ballet of China's Raise the Red Lantern, adapted by director Zhang Yimou from his own film, a series of woeful, dramatic decisions are redeemed into images of lingering beauty. The rape of a feudal lord's new concubine is presented as a hammy Victorian shadow-play, but the aftermath – a red, silk sheet covering the stage and the performers, backed by a screen punctured repeatedly where he chased her through – is elegantly desolating.
Wang Xinpeng and Wang Yuanyuan's choreography, to Chen Qigang's hybrid, Sino-European score, borrows unevenly from choreographers such as Béjart and van Manen. But what's best about this oddly arresting ballet is what's left when the movement stops.Reuse content