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Guangdong Military Acrobatic Troupe

'Swan Lake'

by Cerise Louisa

5th August 2008 - Royal Opera House, London

The eyes of the world are on China as I write this (06/08/08).  As the Olympics opens in Beijing, the city’s tablecloth of hospitality is tainted by a range of political stains, old and new. Amongst these globally visible happenings “Swan Lake” opens at the Royal Opera House in London: on the face of it, what is new?

This “Swan Lake” is not particularly new (it was first choreographed in 2006), but it is news.  Guangdong Military Acrobatic Troupe is here to make a historical and political statement, as well as an aesthetic jibe at the status quo. With ROH full, and a queue of stoical curious enthusiasts waiting for return tickets, vicarious “yellow fever” is rife in central London.  That the company has the audacity to call their production “Swan Lake” (hotly debated in overheard interval murmurings), that it has been so prominently programmed (The Lowry, ROH til August 10th, Royal Concert Hall Nottingham August 13th-16th), and that the production uses (and abuses) the original Tchaikovsky score sets the tone.

This company has rocked the genre and poked fun at the institution of classical dance, like the naughtiest child in the class who grows up to be a multi-millionaire.  This “Swan Lake” is so wrong it goes full circle and becomes an absolute truth. It reminds us right from the start as the Swan Queen formerly known as Odette sails away from the opening scene diagonally upwards off stage on a high wire that ballet is ridiculous.  The movement language, the trained-within-an-inch-of-their lives bodies, the exaggerated mime, the costumes, the stories are all fabulous but ridiculous

Ballet evolved as entertainment, and why the British public should be so aggrieved that Guangdong choreographer Zhao Ming has gone back to the original idea of creating an escapist spectacle to show off the fantastical bodies of the circus-worthy (here jugglers, tumblers, trapeze artists, contortionists, clowns, roller skaters, stilt walkers, unicyclists, illusionists and tight-rope walkers all feature), and punctuate the practically non-existent storyline with world first gymnastic stunts (need I mention Wu Zhengdan’s pointe work on her partner/husband Wei Baohua’s shoulder and head?), is, I believe, short-sighted hypocrisy.

Can we so soon have forgotten the outcry that surrounded the first dancer seen on pointe, Marie Taglioni as La Sylphide in 1832? It was the controversy and publicity in high society circles surrounding these events that ensured the popularity and longevity of the art form as we today recognise it. Ballet plots have always hung together tenuously under the pretext of another costume change, another flight of exotic fantasy. Why not take the Prince to Egypt so that he can ride on a camel past an oversized sphinx and be surrounded by fuchsia clad dancers? The Chinese have been subjected to plenty of racial stereotyping within European ballet plots; why not turn the tables in a witting parody? Guangdong’s “Swan Lake” has set out to dazzle and provoke, and has done so intelligently.

The cleverness lies in the integration of an in-your-face circus sensibility within a central story of love and loss. This was engineered ingeniously, but never subtly.  This lack of subtlety is perhaps the work’s Achilles heel for British audiences. As Baohua and Zhengdan perform their breathtaking feats of balance and delicate partnering, can the sense of poignancy (enhanced by the music for the traditional love duet) be truly imbibed whilst a tumbler in a luminous costume suddenly starts bungeeing across the back of the stage?

The clunkiness of scene changes, rapid mood swings and juxtaposed choreography against the recorded-but-butchered score leaves no breathing space to allow for applause, absorption or build-up of dramatic tension, and is perhaps the production’s fatal downfall for ROH’s ascetic balletomanes.  For me, Odile was the only character who conveyed an emotionally laden interpretation.  The episodes involving the four cygnets danced by men in drag fell a little short of parody and were more of a grotesque travestising (as opposed to the Trocoderos’ successful “transvestising”), and the only heart-felt laugh raised by this quartet was when they lifted their feather-lined skirts over their heads, made beaks with their hands and strutted off stage like a row of Emus.

From their military roots at home in Guangzhou in mainland China 120 kilometers from Hong Kong, there underlies within Guangdong Military Acrobatic Troupe a steely die-hard display of absolute mind-over-body extremism and unified co-operation.  Human rights may not be a strong point in favour of the Chinese right now, but this sumptuous show of talent portends that “The Chinese are a remarkable people…When they are world dominant, things won’t be so bad” (Germaine Greer on Newsnight Review, broadcast on BBC2 Friday 1st August 2008, 23:30hrs). World domination may not be immediately imminent, but we should certainly look out for large-scale cultural production from China, and a big presence in the arts and film industries coming soon. Even those who say they “don’t like” this production and argue against it on a fundamental level, cannot deny it has been done exquisitely well.

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