Ignorance is often a key ingredient in the apprehension of beauty.
The National Ballet of China's The Peony Pavilion may come with pointe shoes, arabesques and a full symphony orchestra, but it shares much of its DNA with traditional Chinese opera. It has the same impact on untutored Western eyes – that of a spectacle as exquisite as it is incomprehensible.
The broad sweep of the story, based on a lengthy 16th-century opera, is clear enough. A beautiful, bored rich girl, Du Liniang, dreams of a scholar-lover, Liu Mengmei. Unable to find him in real life, she wastes away. But when her ghost reaches Hell, the judge who decides the fate of the dead is so impressed by her passion that he returns her to Earth, where she finally meets Liu and marries him, the ghost-mortal union attended by the entire netherworld.
As you might expect from a story that originally took 20 hours to tell, there is more to it than that. And choreographer Fei Bo has piled on even more layers of poetic allusion, by giving Du Liniang two competing alter egos: a ballet-dancing flower goddess representing her passion, and a singing avatar from Chinese opera representing her restraint. Frankly, I wouldn't have had a clue who they were without the programme notes.
Guan Wenting's flower goddess is a severe puppet master, a red-robed warning to Liniang about the deadly consequences of surrendering to her desires, even as she tugs her into ever more extreme attitudes of longing. Yu Xuejiao is a lovely incongruity as operatic Liniang – sumptuous in embroidered blue silk, beneficent but slightly aloof, commenting on the action in Chinese while gliding through the ballet dancers as if on castors. As there were no surtitles to translate her words, she could easily have been mistaken for some presiding Buddha of compassion.
The imagery, though, overwhelms any need for narrative clarity. A low, broad plinth, designed by Michael Simon and connected to the heavens by four wires at its corners, makes a Francis Bacon-like cage dividing the heroine's inner and outer worlds. Nature – in the form of a giant bare branch, convoluted, pudendal blossoms or a corps of trembling flower spirits – seems to reflect and magnify every quiver in the erotically awakening Liniang, danced with a wonderful sense of discovery by Cao Shuci.
Her first, slumbrous act in the ballet is to caress one foot with the other, and the sexual symbolism of feet is a theme all the way through. In their dream love duet, Xing Liang's scholar removes Liniang's pointe shoes – the first as tenderly as an archaeologist uncovering a fragile treasure, the second with the hunger of a child unwrapping Christmas presents. Later he is teased by visions of Liniang as a corps of dancers, each wearing a red pointe shoe on one foot, with the other exposed. (We see lots of dance done barefoot: in context these were naked.) In despair, he lunges and snaps his way along a line of outstretched shoes like a mackerel at a string of lures.
Guo Wenjing's score liberally quotes from Western composers, including Debussy, Ravel and Prokofiev. The clash of East and West produces happy accidents that would probably be less effective with more insight – like the way Yu Xuejiao's cat-in-heat moans raise hackles on the velvety back of L'Après-midi d'un faune. From what we know of her function in the ballet, she is probably recommending an early night with a mug of cocoa. The Peony Pavilion recalls Kipling's old line about "ne'er the twain", and makes you glad for that fine hinterland of incomprehension where the imagination can just run wild.
Rock the Ballet, with Rasta Thomas and his Bad Boys of Dance, neither displays nor demands any imagination, and its appeal passes all understanding. It's a Chippendales show for tweenies, bafflingly choreographed to the record collection of someone fast approaching middle age. Queen, Prince and Michael Jackson succeed each other with the predictability of an Eighties class reunion disco, while the Bad Boys interpret them so literally they make Pan's People look cryptic. They also clap incontinently, like aerobics instructors at an old people's home, and do that "you-da-man" pointing by which urban heterosexual males express their admiration for each other. The sole female cast member only emphasises that the main point of girls is to give boys an opportunity to groom, and preen, and lark about competitively with other boys. Surely there must be a YMCA gym they can all go to.
The Guangdong Acrobatic Troupe of China takes its impressive Swan Lake to Birmingham Hippodrome (23-27 Aug). On the Edinburgh Fringe, Circolombia – Intimo Urban is a rough-and-ready, inspirational circus by young performers who learnt their flamboyant dance and acrobatic skills on the streets (Assembly Hall, to 29 Aug).Reuse content