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Hong Kong Ballet

'The Last Emperor'

Twilight of the Small

by Jeff Kuo

May 25, 2004 -- Warner Theatre, Washington, D.C.

In 1908, Aisin Gioro Puyi (aka Henry Pu Yi) ascended the Dragon Throne to become the 12th emperor of Qin. Three years later, amidst the final collapse of China’s two millennium old imperial system, under the combined pressures of internal weakness, feudal rigidity, and foreign pressure, Pu Yi abdicated to the revolutionary government of Sun Yat-sen and Yuan Shi-kai. He was six years old and the last emperor of China.

The child-emperor remained confined to the Forbidden City surrounded only by his extended household, court followers, and hundreds of eunuchs. Eventually, Pu Yi acquired a Western tutor, Reginald Johnston, and later, both an empress and a concubine. In 1925, the imperial household fled the Forbidden City to Japan for whom in the 1930s he eventually became the puppet ruler of the Japanese client state, Manchukuo. After WWII’s end, Pu Yi was imprisoned both in Russia and in China where he was “re-educated.” Eventually released as “Mr. Pu Yi,” the former emperor became a gardener, sometimes visiting the Forbidden City as an ordinary tourist. Pu Yi died in 1967.

This extraordinary story comes haltingly, ponderously, and only occasionally, intriguingly alive in Hong Kong Ballet’s production of “The Last Emperor” choreographed by Wayne Eagling to music by Su Cong, set design by Liu Yuan-sheng, costumes by Wang Lin-Yu, lighting by Tommy Wong, and re-lit by Wayne Wong. “The Last Emperor” was originally commissioned in 1997 to celebrate Hong Kong’s return to China, and the current tour is part of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office’s “Relaunch Hong Kong” campaign to publicize Hong Kong’s emergence from under the pall of recent years’ SARS epidemics.

Dynastic beginnings and endings have always fascinated artists. Shakespeare balanced “Henry V” with “Richard II”; Petipa the “Sleeping Beauty” with “Swan Lake.” In the world of the theatre, who can resist the charismatic evil of Shakespeare’s Richard III? Or the beautiful, elegiac verse of the melancholy poet king, Richard II? To some degree or another, “Anastasia,” “Mayerling,” “Vienna Waltzes” are all fin de siecle effects.

Pu Yi, however, is no poet king. Early, the ballet portrays Pu Yi with a certain sympathy and humor especially in the scenes with his British tutor, Reginald Johnston (a mime role). At times, there is a certain naiveté in Eagling’s depiction of the colonial encounter. When the boy-emperor Pu Yi puts on Johnston’s spectacles, he is seeing the world through British lenses. Yet, when Johnston puts on the dress of a Mandarin courtier, it is less clear who is assimilating whom. In the scene where to the scandal of numerous eunuch attendants, Johnston teaches the boy-emperor to ride a bicycle, picks him up when he falls, and sets him peddling again, is there an attempt to re-cast the British experience in China (as in India) as political “tutelage”?

As the ballet progresses, Pu Yi moves farther and farther from us. In the wedding night scene, Pu Yi (Frankie-m Lai in yellow pajamas) dances a trio of formal proportions with his Empress, Wan Jun (Irene Lo), and Empress/concubine, Wen Xiu (Faye Leung). The imperial ladies try to beguile Pu Yi with their many charms. They are unsuccessful, and Pu Yi sleeps alone. Act II’s pas de trois of seduction puts Pu Yi in the arms of a Japanese Commander (Kenji Hidaka) and a Japanese Spy (Teresa Webster); they are successful and Pu Yi becomes the pawn of Japanese expansionist ambitions in Asia.

Dramatically, the ballet’s narrative trajectory is a kind of Cinderella story in reverse. Cinderella began sweeping ashes but ended as royalty.  Told largely in flash back, Pu Yi lives out his fall from the Forbidden City of his youth to the confetti littered street he, in middle age, must sweep. Events that classically constructed ballets would have turned into major choreographic displays – enthronement, abdication, weddings, betrayals – are here glossed or ignored. Cinderella dreamed of evening gowns and dress balls in her future – Pu Yi dreams of uniforms and state balls of the long gone past.

Pu Yi dies unnoticed on a litter filled street, and the ballet ends on a distinctly un-fairy tale note. If Cinderella is the princess trapped inside a proletariat’s body, then Pu Yi, the emperor turned gardener, is the nebbish inside every prince. In dramatic terms, these mirror image narrative structures are not equivalent. Fit the slipper, get a princess – kiss a prince, get a toad.

Regardless of its archetypes and anti-archetypes, the ballet does provide a number of tantalizing moments not the least of which is its proffering ensemble sections of varying degrees of familiarity. The dance of palace girls in red Chinese dress could be the orientalized equivalents of the many ethnic forms (czardas, mazurkas, etc) that populate so many classical era ballets. When the eunuchs cavort in decadent self-absorption, it is an allusion to the Friends’ dance in “The Prodigal Son.”

Yet not all the ensemble passages please equally. The Waltz of the Manchukuo courtiers sort of passes by without achieving any of the fin de siecle brilliance of its equivalent scene in Bernardo Bertolucci’s film, “The Last Emperor.” Worse yet, the passages (too many) which place Pu Yi and an Interrogator face to face on wooden interrogation room chairs hold up particularly poorly against Bruce Marks’ human rights ballet, “Swan Song.” "The Last Emperor" closes with a rousing, flag waving dance for a Red Detachment of Guards headed by a sprightly Red Guard lass (Ayako Fujioka). If it wasn’t exactly the salute machine “Stars and Stripes,” neither was it quite out of place in this age of loudly competing ideologies.

The ballet’s basic incompatibility is that Pu Yi is a mime role forced into a dancing part. Hong Kong ballet soloist Frankie-m Lai had the unenviable task of portraying Pu Yi as the dynastic has-been to end all dynasties. As the Imperial Tutor Reginald Johnston, David Izak Claase looked smart and knowledgeable. Principal Faye Leung, who danced Wen Xiu, had a certain irrepressible radiance and beauty, and was particularly charming as the Empress/concubine turned roaring 20s flapper. Irene Lo was Nicole to Frankie-m Lai’s Dick Diver; and Teresa Webster had all the fun as Natasha to Hidaka’s Japanese Commander Boris. The music was taped.

Edited by Lori Ibay

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