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Yang Liping: Under Siege review at Sadler’s Wells, London – ‘a cinematic quality’

Gong Zhonghui and He Shang (back) in Under Siege at Sadler's Wells. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Clusters of scissors are suspended above the stage. Every so often they are lowered, their sharp points encroaching on the space as the sound of their blades scraping together merges with the music of two traditional Chinese instruments.

From its opening moments Yang Liping’s Under Siege, presented as part of Sadler’s Wells Out of Asia season, is visually striking. Amidst the action a paper cutter sits calmly downstage, shaping Chinese letters from the snowy pile in front of her. Her symbols introduce each scene and character of Liping’s ancient story – an abstract retelling of the final Chu-Han battle and the founding of the Han dynasty.

Traditional Chinese art forms combine with contemporary techniques to create a surprisingly theatrical work. Liping weaves into her performance elements stylistic of Peking Opera, from the elaborate headdresses and masks worn by the company to the dramatic rise and fall of the narrator’s carrying voice.

Liping’s choreography, a fusion of martial arts and contemporary dance, is at its most impressive in the battle scenes. Bodies soar and spin through space with extraordinary elevation, executing kung fu style kicks and close combat work. It is at times loud and forceful but Liping shows her work can be sensual as well. A fluent, balletic style distinguishes the role of the concubine, male dancer Hu Shenyuan’s pliable, muscular body exhibiting a refined technique.

Even if the details of the story pass you by, the cinematic quality of this work is fascinating. It ends in a swirling mass of red feathers; a soft, picturesque image of a bloody battle. Under Siege is a lengthy performance, but the glimpse it offers into the art forms and stories of an ancient culture is enthralling.

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Ancient and abstract combine to create a visual spectacular