Magnificent cruelty

The Yang Liping Dance Company presents "Under Siege,' the story of the epic battle between the Chu and Han dynasties.

The Yang Liping Dance Company presents ‘Under Siege’ (photo credit: CHRISTOPHE RAYNAUD DE LAGE)
The Yang Liping Dance Company presents ‘Under Siege’
The show is about to begin. The lights slowly dim, and the last viewers are quickly making their way to their seats. The stage is bare but for an installation made from a mass of metal scissors (10,000 of them), hovering menacingly over the stage like storm clouds, auguring the calamity that is about to occur.
On the right side of the stage, close to the edge, sits a woman dressed in white. She is cutting large Chinese symbols out of white paper.
Every time she finishes a shape, she shows it to the audience. She will continue cutting the symbols throughout the dance performance.
By the end of the show, she will be buried under them.
Under Siege tells the story of the epic battle between China’s Chu and Han dynasties, circa 200 BCE.
Charting war, betrayal, power and passion, the story is perhaps best known in the West via the 1993 award-winning film Farewell, My Concubine.
The Yang Liping Dance Company will perform Under Siege in Tel Aviv on April 26-28, and I am in Austria to see its first performance in Europe.
The performance takes place in a new cultural center located in a small town not far from Vienna. Strolling through the empty streets of the town on the morning of the performance, I get my first glimpse of the choreographer as she and her entourage make their way to the theater. Yang Liping, slim and beautiful, is dressed in an elaborately embroidered electric-blue dress, which she later tells me is a traditional garment that was made for her. As part of her quest to preserve the traditional arts of her Bai ethic minority in the villages of her native province of Yunnan, she wears only clothes made by local artisans.
As a choreographer, Liping delves into ancient traditions which she weaves together with modern sensibilities, incorporating various Chinese dance forms, from opera to martial arts and contemporary dance.
Liping rose to national fame in China in the mid-1980s. At 58, she still performs as a dancer. She has starred in several films and is a judge on TV’s So You Think You Can Dance China.
She speaks only Chinese, so we meet backstage with company manager Nathan Wang acting as translator.
“Even though the story [of Under Siege] is 2,000 years old, how people fight for power and greed is still relevant today,” Liping explains.
“What is important to me is to show how people fight and destroy themselves in order to get more power, more money, how they lie to get the power and what the temptations are that leaders have to face and overcome.”
She goes on to say that all the elements in Under Siege are based on traditional culture. “The dancers are Chinese, and the dance is Chinese. There are no Western ballet elements but a mixture of old elements presented in a modern way. For instance, the woman – the lover – is danced by a male dancer. This is the traditional way, and it comes from the Beijing Opera. The old man – the narrator – is a singer in the Beijing Opera,” she says.
Under Siege incorporates many artistic elements, she says. There is Chinese music. Some of the music is played on traditional instruments, but there is also kung fu, paper cutting and shadows, and an artistic installment that features a number of artistic expressions.
“The installation art on stage, created by designer Tim Yip, symbolizes fear and danger,” she explains. “Scissors are used a lot in China, and paper cutting is an ancient tradition. Also, in Chinese, the word ‘scissors’ is very special – it means ‘two blades, two swords.’ In the villages, paper cutting is used for many performances. They create beautiful flowers from paper and entire pictures. The girl cutting paper in Under Siege is an important element. She cuts the papers, and in the end she is buried in the paper she has cut. She is covered with it.
So the cutting also symbolizes how greed can actually bury you. The person who tries to produce as much as they can may actually be buried by their own work.”
Liping explains how everything on stage symbolizes her ideas. For example, the generals dressed in black and white are like the symbol of yin and yang. They express the two sides of everything – the good mixed with the bad.
“At the end of the piece, we have the red feathers. Chicken feathers are very symbolic in Chinese culture. Someone’s life can be as heavy as metal or as light as a feather. So when the battle is finished and they all die, the red feathers fall on the dead bodies.
Red is bloody and cruel, but it also has a sense of beauty. So at the end, we use the drifts of red feathers that fall softly on the dead bodies to create a contrast between cruelty and beauty,” she points out.
A dancer since 1971, Liping started dancing in Yunnan.
“At first, I focused on the ethnic dance of the minority that lives in Yunnan,” she explains.
She still incorporates ethnic dance in her performances.
The Peacock, one of the wellknown pieces that I still perform, is based on ethnic dance,” she says.
A major celebrity in China, Liping admits that she uses her fame to promote her ideas.
“I am very popular. There are many young girls who want to become dancers now. I work in order to preserve dances from the villages – dances and movements that are in danger of disappearing forever. I am trying to preserve them and bring them to the stage,” she says.
Part of that effort is done by auditioning for young dancers in the villages of Yunnan.
“We audition dancers in the villages. I find the dancers there, as well as the dances. We want to teach the old traditions to the next generations,” she says.
“The dance company is based in Yunnan, but we are registered on the Beijing stock exchange, and we have small companies in different cities around China. All together, our company has 500 employees – almost 200 work in Yunnan, 30 in Beijing, and the others in other cities,” she says.
Liping has another dance company, Peacock, named after her first famous dance piece. It is a modern dance company, a nonprofit organization that is run separately from the Yang Liping Company.
While rooted in the style of Chinese folk dance, Liping’s choreography also veers towards an almost hip-hop like virtuosity. The battle scenes in Under Siege are magnificent, with a chorus of dancers somersaulting in the cross currents of war. The narrator reacts to the grim course of history with a refined, shuddering dread. All the principal dancers are male. Among them, Hu Shenyuan is outstanding as the self-sacrificial concubine Yu Ling. He moves with delicacy, evoking rare beauty, and the duet he dances with his defeated lover is simply exquisite.
Executed with stunning precision, the dancers are impressive in their ability to perform everything from acrobatic jumps to more abstract movements and expressions.
The tale may not always be clear to Western viewers, but thanks to the spellbinding images, it is not always that important. Under Siege is undoubtedly the most visually stunning production I have seen in a long time.
‘Under Siege’ will be performed on April 26-28 at the Opera House in Tel Aviv.
(Ding Yi Jie) (Ding Yi Jie)