An eighth-century Chinese legend told through the medium of contemporary dance is never going to be less than challenging, for creators and spectators alike. Patrick de Bana’s hypnotic account of the fatal romance between Emperor Ming and his favourite concubine Lady Yang invites all kinds of mythical associations, from the Trojan Wars to Giselle, and yet retains its own identity.
It’s a slow-burning work, opening on a bare stage in which figures move with minute-hand slowness, a woman in white like an errant Wili backs across the stage in a crouching, crawling movement to a soundtrack of echoing ululations. Using various techniques and dance disciplines, from Japanese butoh to neo-classical ballet, De Bana constructs a work of epic intimacy to an eclectic soundtrack of music from East, West and who-knows-where strung together seamlessly. Anyone who can move from mutant calypso to Philip Glass and thence to the tumultuous thunder of Kodo drumming is aurally daring in the extreme.
As the story unfurls, the set appears to dress itself around the dancers – backdrops descend, a few props are moved on, the marble floor of a palace is created by light. The dancers move like human glaciers, gathering momentum as it proceeds, dressed to thrill in costumes that are the stuff of myth – soft silks that flow in around and between the limbs, shifting the focus to the curling, articulate hand gestures and the filigree footwork. Although the story is as obscure as a shrouded moon, the sense is as clear as day.
De Bana’s elegant, far-reaching choreography includes glancing references to the body-slamming virility of John Cranko and the controlled, emotional machismo of Russell Maliphant, yet seems made of whole cloth. The dancers are little short of astonishing. Combining elements of tai chi with occasional flying leaps and the fierce power of bodies anchored to the ground, there are passages of ethereal gracefulness and athletic energy. An early pas de deux of spine-tingling sensuality is repeated at the end in a flurry of snow; a battle scene is conducted by two men in blazing light while shadowed warriors fight around them. Beauty, horror and tragedy become indistinguishable from each other. It is all one.