Chinese theatre is one of the oldest performing disciplines in the world. Born as an Imperial bit of fun, the passing centuries have bred epic legends, tongue-in-cheek domestic conflicts and created a sense of identity in its vast home country. Not to mention a stunning wardrobe department. Sent to the West on a rare goodwill exercise, the China National Peking Company touches down briefly in the UK later this month, giving its unique historical roots a good shaking in Liverpool and London.
Headed by Yu Kuizhi and his leading lady, Li Shengsu, they will be dancing, among other things, The Warrior Women of Yang, roughly speaking the story of a dastardly plot by the male army to overthrow the Emperor, prompting their wives to take control and save the day. Needless to say the women, led by Shengsu, have all the best bits while their menfolk huff and puff from sniggeringly superior to plain old sulky. Leading man Kuizhi has little more to do than wear a frown. It sounds like a current TV advert.
But these artists thrill when they move. A frozen tableau opens every act with the women’s costumes filling the stage with a dazzling opulence. Then they start to dance. The stage in Vilnius was tiny and the cramped Emperor’s throne room looked more like Coronation Street parlour than Buckingham Palace, but when they got going, boy do they cover the ground. The stage patterns are complex, but never dull, the dancers weave in and out, covering the space with their famous gliding motion. And what an impact this single, simple choreographic conceit has when performed by these artists. Nothing it seems, can convey truly sickening fear or outrageous triumph unless expressed through this inhuman, unstoppable tidal wave of movement. But perhaps the most apparently impenetrable part of the show to the Western eye is the extravagant make-up, more akin to clown than characterisation.
Taking up to two hours to apply, to a Western observer its initial impact is dehumanising, but as the story unfolds, the layers of greasepaint eerily reflect the drama within. Magic. This company from the Far East is a rare treat to Western eyes. Catch it if you can.
The company plays the Liverpool Echo Arena 13 and 14 and London Sadler’s Wells 19 to 22 November.