Thousands of scissors hang from the ceiling. At first, it feels like the canopy of a strange, silvery forest. It seems to breathe – as if the clusters of sharp foliage are moved by a gentle wind. Then the music starts – traditional instruments played by performers in white who slide on to the stage as if they are floating. As the music rises to a crescendo, the canopy begins to move with sinister urgency, like an incoming storm.
This is the spectre that hangs over the entire performance of Under Siege, Yang Liping Contemporary Dance’s retelling of the Chu-Han Contention – a four-year war from Chinese history between the Western Chu and Han forces following the fall of the Qin dynasty in 206 BC. The war led to the establishment of the Han dynasty in 202 BC under emperor Liu Bang, and Yang Liping’s production uses dance, narration and traditional motifs to retell the oft-told story.
A two-hour performance couldn’t hope to cover the entirety of that war, and Under Siege doesn’t even try. Instead, it introduces the main actors in the drama – Xiang Yu (He Shang), the king of the Western Chu, and Yu Ju, his concubine (Hu Shenyuan, in an arresting performance, not least because it has been cast cross-gender, a tradition in the Peking Opera). Liu Bang (Gong Zhonghui), warrior and future emperor; and Han Xin (Xiao Fuchun), the strategist and deserter of Xiang Yu, who played a critical role in the defeat of his former leader – and arrives at the action as the final battle, the Battle of Gaixia, is about to take place. Narration by Xiao He (Guo Yi), a statesman and follower of Liu, urges the audience through the highly stylised performance with dramatic gestures and melodious delivery.
At the front of the stage, a woman in white sits surrounded by piles of white paper. Throughout the performance, she cuts the paper into shapes – sometimes into Chinese characters, sometimes images of people themselves. The tradition of Chinese paper cutting dates back to the 6th century, and the performance of it here brings a constant sense of reflection to the work – the serenity with which she (mostly) performs her task is a reminder that we are watching history from the safety of the present.
There are long stretches of the program that seem to be more like a meditation on character; little occurs, and it’s not clear what service the extended treatment performs for the story. There are also moments of comedy that border on pantomime which, while amusing, seem to come from a different production altogether.
The production really comes into its own during the battle scenes, in which the distinction between martial arts and dance becomes increasingly blurred. The true spirit of this work is in the choreography in these scenes, and the energy and electricity of the dancers who perform them.
The dramatic final sequence, in which the cast roll and leap and dive through great drifts of red feathers that flurry and erupt around them – a sea of blood, and a place to sleep in death – is not simply a technical feat; the contrast between the clanking, vicious canopy of sharp edges with the overwhelming sea of softness is an aesthetic triumph.
Yang is a household name in China, making her name back in 1986 with her dance work, Spirit of the Peacock, and her presence at the curtain call on Friday night brings the house to its feet. Under Siege gives some glimpse into why she is so popular. While the pacing and drama lag, there’s no denying that this is an arresting and highly memorable piece of contemporary theatre, reaching towards the visually spectacular.
By Stephanie Convery