"Absolutely stunning. A work of strong vision and serious spectacle."
Unless you're Chinese you've probably never heard of Yang Liping, the multi-award-winning dancer and choreographer, and a judge on China's version of So You Think You Can Dance? (from where she has recruited some of her cast).
Under Siege is her first show in Britain, based on the same 2,000-year-old story of warring generals that inspired Farewell My Concubine, and it is at once an absolutely stunning production and a tough watch.
Stunning because designer Tim Yip, who won an Oscar for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, has created a set featuring hundreds of pairs of scissors hanging above the stage, looking in turn like intricate chainmail, drooping silver willow branches, and a flock of Hitchcockian birds diving with metallic beaks.
There are deep connections to traditional Chinese culture: a woman sits in the corner of the stage making paper cuts; musicians pluck strange textures from multi-stringed pipas (lutes); and Yang's choreography draws heavily on martial arts, its movements amplified into the whole body.
The dynamic is one of vigilant stillness and sudden, powerful attack; plus flying kicks and the kind of split leaps that can evidently win a war. Set apart from the warriors is the tragic concubine, played by male dancer Hu Shenyuan, a startlingly supple mover with endlessly snaking arms, legs and torso like a one-man Medusa.
Theatrically, the sensibility owes much to Peking Opera, and this is where some might find the aesthetic severe. Gnomically titled scenes ('A Duel', 'Ambushed') are played out in stylised, declamatory manner. The performers set out action rather than explore character; this is theatre as (lengthy) ritual rather than a conversation with the subject matter. And this may be authentic, but it's not a natural mode for all audiences – the fact that the one speaking role isn't translated doesn't help. But this is a work of strong vision and serious spectacle nonetheless.
Author: Lyndsey Winship
Yang Liping’s Under Siege had its UK premiere at Sadler’s Wells on Wednesday as part of the theatre’s Out of Asia season. The action, based on the story of the besieged warlord Xiang Yu and his self-sacrificing concubine, was tough to follow and it was far too long (two hours, no interval), but my goodness it was gorgeous. The designs by Tim Crouching Tiger Yip are based on “The Mending Project”, a 2011 installation by Texas-based artist Beili Liu. Thousands of pairs of shears hang from the flies in rows like a deadly laburnum alley (Savile Row might want to rethink its Christmas lights), catching the light and fragmenting its beams like sunlight filtered through a glade of blades. Each stage picture is lovelier than the last. The final bloodbath (“a mass grave of history”) is enacted Pina Bausch-style on a thick carpet of red feathers that are thrown in handfuls at the enemy and spray into the air on impact like slow-motion exit wounds.
Meanwhile, downstage left, Wang Yang, a traditional paper cutter, scissors out the Chinese ideograms that introduce each protagonist. Frustratingly, neither these helpful signposts nor the Peking opera-trained singing of Qiu Jirong came with surtitles, making the action decidedly confusing for the non-Chinese speaker despite strong characterisation from Yang’s agile and expressive dancers.
Qiu Jirong’s Xiao He haunts the action like an omniscient ghost. Hu Shenyuan’s ballerina feet and hyperflexible spine create a sinuous private language for the doomed concubine. Gong Zhonghui turns the somersault into an act of war as the marauding Liu Bang, but most scenes were stolen by Pan Yu and Gao Chen as the two personalities wrestling for the soul of Han Xin in a series of extraordinary psychomachic duets.
The choreography, co-devised by Yang and five of the dancers, is a mad, mercurial mix of tai chi, kung fu, ballet, hip-hop and Peking opera acrobatics. The entire cast have an eerie ability to rewind up from the floor and they leap and somersault with such airy elevation that you instinctively look for wires among the dangling scissors.
Author: Louise Levene
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.
Author: Rachel Elderkin
It’s hard to think of a more visually ravishing production this year than Yang Liping’s Under Siege. It’s based on the historic, bloody battle between Chinese warlords Xiang Yu and Liu Bang, but Yang and her designer Tim Yip have distilled the material down to images of hallucinatory beauty.
Yip’s set is constructed from a dense, clanking mass of steel scissors that hang over the stage like storm clouds – or like a distant, gathering army. They catch the light in extraordinary ways; burnished into a hard angry gold, dark with the smoke of battle or reduced at the end to gaunt silhouettes, framing the stage as drifts of blood-red feathers fall softly over the bodies of the dead.
Yang’s choreography looks more traditional, but while rooted in the language of Chinese folk dance it also veers towards extremes of stark expressionism and quasi-balletic virtuosity, mirroring the dramatic range of the score. The battle scenes are extraordinary, with a chorus of black-clad dancers somersaulting, backflipping and whirling in the cross currents of war: Qiu Jirong as the narrator reacts to the grim course of history with a refined, shuddering dread. All the principal dancers are male and among them, Hu Shenyuan is outstanding as the self-sacrificial concubine Yu Ling. He moves with an eerie suppleness, the delicate, voluptuous coils of his body evoking a rare hot-house beauty. His farewell duet with his defeated lover is infinitely, exquisitely sad.
That duet, however, is one of the few moments when we engage with the characters’ emotions, or even when we are certain what is happening. Yang’s storyline is familiar to Chinese audiences but there are few signposts to help the unknowing westerner. No surtitles are provided for the narrators’ long speeches and, far more problematically, the highly stylised nature of the action offers little narrative exposition. Much of this two-hour production is frankly impenetrable, and despite the sweep and beauty of its imagery, it’s not an evening for the faint-hearted or unprepared.
Author: Judith Mackrell
A stunning vision of the climactic battle between the Chu and Han armies.
Renowned Chinese choreographer and dancer Yang Liping will present the UK premiere of Under Siege, her stunning vision of the climactic battle between the Chu and Han armies, at Sadler’s Wells.
The story – of an encounter that changed the course of Chinese history – is celebrated most famously through music, literature and film as Farewell My Concubine, and is now reimagined and staged by Yang with searing poignancy.
With a cast of performers who come from styles and traditions as diverse as Peking Opera, hip hop, ballet and contemporary dance, classical and folk music, this unique piece of dance theatre, which is being supported by The Pure Land Foundation and Brung Wang Productions, promises to be an unforgettable experience.
Working with Yang, who is currently a judge on So You Think You Can Dance China, are Academy and BAFTA award-winning set and costume designer Tim Yip (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Akram Khan’s DESH and artist-designer Beili Liu.