Guangdong Acrobatic Troupe of China
Hippodrome Theatre, Birmingham, UK; August 23, 2011
No the photo below is not fixed. And no, there are no safety wires. This might be the image of the show everyone knows, but it’s just one moment in a wonderful evening’s entertainment.
The Guangdong troupe’s take on “Swan Lake” might not be the one ballet lovers know although, and I’m sure it would have some purists holding their hands up in horror, but what is ballet anyway? Perhaps surprisingly, given everything that’s been piled into it, their take on the classic does retain the essence of the story. Here, a European prince falls in love with a Chinese swan. After an impressive prologue that would stand well in any regular ballet production, our Prince journeys to the East to find her. It’s a neat retelling that allows all manner of influences and dances to be brought in to what would normally be the Act I ballroom scene. There’s even an appearance by a camel and an elephant.
There is classical ballet in there of course, not to mention moments that draw on Chinese opera and Chinese dance, but it’s the acrobatics, juggling, tightrope walking, contortionism, martial arts and goodness knows what else, that really gets the audience going. In the West this is circus, but we sometimes forget that in East Asia all these things have long been highly respected art forms easily on a par with ballet, so bringing them together is not as strange as it may first seem.
It is a non-stop feast of action that soon had the audience on the edges of their seats and that made the Cirque du Soleil look tame. In a whole new take on pole dancing, acrobats arrive and leap between thirty foot high poles, often arriving upside down and holding on only with their legs and feet. There is some very clever juggling with hats, mirrored by a group of ladies en pointe behind in, it has to be said, some of the most gorgeous red dresses ever seen on stage. The dance of the cygnets becomes the dance of the four little frogs, performed almost entirely on handstand. There are scenes that are quite surreal, most notably the Spanish dance, performed by women en pointe but with their male partners on unicycles. There’s even humour, courtesy of four swans danced by men, who make a pretty good job of out-Trocking the Trocks. But this “Swan Lake” is far from a collection of specialty acts. Everything is woven together quite seamlessly. Given that every show features the same performers, there is no second cast, it was amazing I only spotted one minor mishap.
The stars, of course, are the hunky Wei Baohua and his supremely slim and lithe wife Wu Zhengdan. The show came about after they won the Golden Lion Prize at the China Acrobatics Competition and the Golden Clown Award at the Monte Carlo International Acrobatic Competition in 2004 with their “Oriental Swan-Ballet on Top of Head” (Chinese titles do not translate well into English, as you probably gather!).
All the pas de deux are acrobatically complex, the final one especially so. The music helps, of course, but what was surprising was that it still had that spine tingling effect of the Petipa. Of course, everyone was waiting for the moments when Wu dances en pointe on her husband’s head and shoulders. I’ll swear most people in the audience were holding their breath. It may be over quite quickly, but it is most impressive.
The present UK tour is almost over. The remaining Birmingham shows are almost sold out, but if you can grab a seat, go, go, go!
Wu Zhengdan and her husband Wei Baohua in 'Swan Lake'.jpg [ 25.19 KiB | Viewed 2006 times ]