The Flowers That Bloom in the Spring

Suzhou Kun Opera Theatre of Jiangsu
"The Peony Pavilion"
Kenneth Pai, writer & producer
Wang Shiyu, artistic director &
Production director
Starring Yu Jiu-Lin & Shen Feng-Ying
Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley,
Berkeley, CA
September 15-18, 2006

by Paul Parish
copyright ©2006 by Paul Parish

"The Peony Pavilion has been billed as a restoration of the old values of the Kunqun (pronounced Kyung-chun) opera, the lyrical predecessor to Peking Opera, which had almost been killed off in Maoist times, especially during the Cultural Revolution, when the artists were turned out of the theaters and set to work in the fields. (There they took stock of their memories and wrote down all they could remember before it was too late). The tradition was nearly broken, and until this production, in recent times all the performers of a love-drama like "Peony Pavilion" were the old masters, artists in their 60s — this is the first time in living memory that young beautiful performers have embodied the roles of the young lovers in the tale.

Despite the scholarly air of the whole phenomenon, with academic symposia surrounding the marathon presentation (spread out over several evenings, like Wagner's I), unfortunately, the PR rhetoric feels a bit like boilerplate. SO there's a natural tendency to resist the scale of the assertions. Sill, there is no question in my mind that this is a masterpiece of world literature, telling a story of the power of love to triumph over death, and that with the extraordinary lyric depth of the Song of Songs or the love-poems of Rumi, where sacred and profane love wrap round each other and interpenetrate. Nor that it deserves Gesammtkunstwerk-presentation (originally in 55 acts over 20 hours — in our case, 9 hours spread over 3 performances). It only makes me regret the more that I didn't see the version of "Peony Pavilion" put together and presented a decade ago by Peter Sellars (which these presenters never mention in their publicity).

There is no call for elaborate discussion of the dancing in an opera, but it was clear from the first announcement that the entire spectacle was going to be highly stylized, and that the moving pictures themselves would be strange and fascinating. The most striking movement was for the side characters: the soldiers and sailors who create menace in the scenes which set the lovers' story in the context of war-torn China. (And how the demons of the underworld behaved I can't report, since I had to miss the central installment, where the hero descends into the grave of the woman he's dreamt of, who's dreamt of him and, pining away, died waiting for him and left a portrait of herself to abide his coming. They're married by lightning and thunder amidst a spectacle I can only imagine.) But the soldiers, the war-lords, the pirate and his wife who're pushing war ever southward use martial-arts and acrobatic moves to sensational effect, while the servants have a comic language that strongly recalls the comic sub-plots in Elizabethan plays. There's similar use of presentational soliloquies ("Sometimes I go about and poison wells" comes from a play of Marlowe's but could just as easily have come from a character in "Peony Pavilion"), and the body-lingo is similarly adroit at advancing the story and entertaining us. The gardener who protects the young scholar has a wonderfully spavined gait, his old teacher takes great pratfalls, and the heroine's handmaiden (Spring Fragrance) has a vast arsenal of pert ways. She's a soubrette in exactly the same was as is Despina or Zerlina or the parlor-maid in "The Rules of the Game," and she frequently runs away with the show. She tosses the ends of her sash like the Bedoya dancers of Java, but in her case it's always to punctuate some silly or poignant observation. She has a thousand tilts to the head and hilarious ways of starting and stopping her gait to show that a new thought has struck her.

Like her mistress's, Spring Fragrance's primary way of moving is with twinkling small steps that roll through the platform shoe heel-to-toe. These steps function exactly like bourrées — the steps are very short, extremely even, the head does not change levels, and the character seems to glide weightlessly, like a flower-petal on water. The fairies also move like this and are expressly understood to be the personifications of flowers. When a corps of a dozen or so surround the heroine in her great erotic dream-scene, the effect is of a floating ecstasy: their silk capes drift in a magnificent procession that overwhelms the stage, like a wave of magic.

Anyone who's familiar at all with Chinese dancing will remember the way they pull long panels of silk fluttering through the air; there seems to be a fascination with the manifold consequences that the silk reveals in these actions which is philosophical, almost religious, as if it showed us the secrets of time rippling in the wake of an impulse: the consequences must be dwelt upon, studied, savored. As with Chinese fascination with the secrets that can be revealed in calligraphy (which the new Cloudgate show coming next month is based on), the study of the unexpected vagaries of streamers set in motion seems to be investigative, as if the deepest secrets of the spirit world could be discerned by examination of the currents revealed by light glancing off streaming silk. [It puts me in mind of Andy Galsworthy's studies of rivers and Tides, the ebb and flow at the edge of physics and metaphysics.]

Precious is the first word to come to mind — every move is choreographed, postures, steps, gestures — the beautiful and slightly startling movements of the hands, in particular, which are describing significant arcs at all times. Though these movements come to the fore only a few times in "Peony Pavilion," where the primary interest remains always in the poetic language and music. But they are always there. Characters always move in these studied precious ways, as if the opera were a reliquary and the contents must be understood to be holy.

Volume 4, No. 35
October 2, 2006

copyright ©2006 Paul Parish



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