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The China Jinling Dance Company of Nanjing performs "The Peony Pavilion." Photo courtesy China Jinling Dance Company of Nanjing.

Copyright 2012 Philip W. Sandstrom

NEW YORK -- It's amazing how every time I witness a character rising or being raised from the dead my throat wells up. It happens every time, no matter how ludicrous the situation. To me there is no image that is more powerful, perhaps because the action is beyond human capabilities, as only gods or God can perform this miracle; there's no other word for it. The ingenue Du Liniang (Hu Qinxin)'s resurrection in the final scene of the China Jinling Dance Company of Nanjing's version of "The Peony Pavilion," seen January 8 at Lincoln Center, was the most moving part of the entire production. Even the flying sequence in which the spirit body of Liniang zips around over the heads of actors and sets, while she swoops and speeds around like a sparrow, spying upon Liu Mengmei (Xu Peng), her romantic interest, as he goes to market, amazing as it appeared, did not overtake her "awakening" for emotional resonance. But on to the story....

"The Peony Pavilion," is a complex dance in five parts. A video prologue offers moving images of flowers and ink sketches which fill the enormous proscenium screen. Act I takes place in Liniang's study, where her boredom leads to dreams of fantasy about a sexual encounter with Liu Mengmei, acted out in a lonely heroine dance that, although powerfully performed, with curving movements, seemed as much fanciful as sexual. When she awakes it only breaks her heart, ultimately provoking her fatal sickness and death in Act II.

Following the intermission, in Act III of the two hour play (this version of "The Peony Pavilion" should not be confounded with the original eight-hour edition), Liniang's soul, with aerial aplomb described above, searches for Liu, finding him at a flea market stand where he purchases the sketch she drew of him after her fantastical orgiastic dream. It's not clear how the sketch ended up at this market. She finally catches up with him in a nunnery -- why a nunnery isn't clear. They embrace, and there they pledge everlasting love, only to have her snatched back moments later by Death, who returns her to the underworld, leading Liu on a fruitless, and somewhat corny, chase after his now betrothed. Act IV is a two-part affair. First Liniang pleads with the underworld gods for a reprieve so she may return to the land of the living and loving to join her first love and live for that love. She eventually wins out over cruel torture, through arduous dancing exhibiting her shear tenacity. Her spirit returns home in time to see Liu viewing her body and as he cries in anguish, she awakens as her soul is reunited with her corpse. At this point, I cry. I am a pushover when it comes to resurrections. They all appear to be on their way to living happily ever after as the couple is buttressed by an enormous chorus that joins the already large cast to fill the stage and sing praises to love.

As big and complicated as this story is, the China Jinling Dance Company carried it off with stunning beauty. The stage design by Zhou Danlin and Yan Ye provided gigantic and vivid floral patterns that somehow seemed appropriate for this over the top production; it all fit perfectly. The super-sized scenic drops of flowers and calligraphy, combined with the various leaf, landscape, and flowers that seemed to float in mid-air, often overlapped to give imponderable depth-of-field that was stunningly exploited to create a geographic wonderland. The onstage sets of benches, rocks, and chairs, the pavilion, and the marketplace shops were sparse yet effective in interacting with the human-size cast and left adequate space for the dancers to explore the entirety of the stage. The exception to this visual nirvana was the rock-show lighting cues which blanketed the entire stage in shifting lights and instantaneous color changes that were larded on with many of the deviations in the music. Although these atmospheres of light, once completed and stationary and static, possessed beauty, Wang Ruiguo, the lighting designer, needed to control his urge to splash and blast and learn some subtlety; it was a delicate story that required a gentle hand.

The choreography by Ying Zhiqi, Lu ling, and Wu Nigs moved the plot forward in clear, interesting, and understandable ways without the gymnastic-like pyrotechnics that often emerge in Chinese ballet. A perfect example was the love duet, when Xu Peng's Liu and Hu Qinxin's Liniang finally meet, full of emotion and careful steps that reveal the intensity of their love and passion through a fitting assembly of movements, staging, and blocking.

The performances of the entire cast were technically proficient and a pleasure to behold, like a well-made cake. But with the sheer volume of chorus and supernumeraries filling out the stage, some of the scenes looked like crowd scenes from a pop concert that became a little bit rowdy.

The story required some heavy lifting by the composers of the original score -- Fang Ming, Wang Wei, and Hui Peifeng -- which sometimes led to music of a bombastic nature. But in the composers' defense, the plot required some muscular phrases to carry off the fantastical vision of production director Qin Wenhuan and executive director Wang Ziuqin. A good example was the resurrection scene, which was carried as much by the music as it was by the dance and lighting. As in the end of "La Boheme," in which the music change signals the death of Mimi with frightening accuracy, the music shift for Liniang's arising stirred the soul and completed the emotional arc of the show with aplomb.

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