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Bonnie Rosenstock
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David H. Koch Theater
United States
New York City
New York
New York, NY

Yang Liping Contemporary Dance's “Under Siege,” A Traditional Tale Told for Today

by Bonnie Rosenstock
August 28, 2019
David H. Koch Theater
20 Lincoln Center
New York, NY 10023
“Under Siege” (U.S. premiere, August 8-10, as part of Lincoln Center’s month-long Mostly Mozart Festival), performed by Yang Liping Contemporary Dance on August 10, began with suspended silver scissors and ended with flying red feathers. It is the retelling of the historic Chinese origins saga, which focuses on the final battle of the four-year war (the Battle of Gaixia) between the Han and Chu armies that established modern China beginning with the 400-year reign of the Han Dynasty nearly 2,000 years ago.

Director/choreographer Yang Liping’s dance-theater production pulled out all stops, from classical ballet, contemporary dance, martial arts, drama, narration, live music and traditional paper cutting to ingenious sets, costumes and lighting. It was like binge-watching episodes of a series when you have already been told the outcome. It was spectacular, lavish and engaging, but clocking in at one hour and 40 minutes, without intermission, there were too many slowing-down commercial breaks in between.

Yang Liping, a household name in China, is of Bai minority ethnicity and hails from Dali in Yunnan province, the epicenter of the Bai culture numbering around two million people. She started out as a folk dancer, performing traditional Bai dances, which she embellished with her own brand of creative expression. She earned awards and fame throughout China and the nickname “Peacock Princess of China” for her innovative peacock dance. Along the way, she choreographed and directed as well. Yang, now 60, retired from dance in 2012 in order to learn about contemporary dance, her models being Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The result is “Under Siege,” her fifth major production as a choreographer, and her first to incorporate contemporary dance with Chinese Beijing Opera traditions.

The thousands of gleaming scissors were not only suspended from the rafters, but they also fluttered up and down and swooped and alighted on the floor as if endowed with bird wings. A great visual as the dancers also dramatically entered and exited upstage through them. The scissors idea originated from an installation by visual artist Beili Liu, which Yang and her visual director/set and costume designer Tim Yip (Academy Award for Best Art Direction, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) adapted. The program notes described them as forming “a dark cloud overhead…looming over the stage like a heavy curse” and representing the crossed blades of Xiang Yu, the Western Chu king, and Liu Bang, the Han leader.

On the audience far right side of the stage sat Wang Yan, the serene contemplative paper cutter dressed in white, surrounded by her mounting pile of cuttings. She cut out figures and Chinese characters to complement the narrative, related by the wonderfully sonorous voice of Tong Mingguang in the manner of Beijing Opera. He also doubled as Xiao He, a statesman who served as an advisor and later prime minister to Liu Bang (Emperor Gao), the founder of the Han dynasty. He narrated in Chinese while screens on both sides of the stage offered translation in English. Two Chinese pipas (a pear-shaped four-stringed plucked instrument that looks like a lute) and a drum produced dramatic ever-changing moods, while the occasional jarring shot of synthesizer seemed to belong to another era and show.

The production was divided into four Acts: Mantis on the Hunt, The Campaign Begins, The Siege and Forgotten Graves. As in all good tales and within the human spirit, there is betrayal, love, jealousy, hubris, conflicted hearts, heroes and anti-heroes, performed with dramatic gestures and emotion. The muscular, hunky Ge Junyi, a strong exciting dancer, epitomizes Xiang Yu, the charismatic Chu leader, who misreads his army’s loyalty. In contrast, dancer Zhu Fengwei, who embodies the Han leader Liu Bang, is slight of figure and seemingly weak, but knows how to scheme, negotiate and dance masterfully. General Han Xin is portrayed by two dancers, Gong Zonghui in White and Ouyang Tian in Black, who represent his conflicted nature, as he contemplates betraying Xiang Yu. His two sides have some intense dance moments together. (He deserts and goes over to the Han side, which turns the tide.) The soft side of the fierce warrior Xiang Yu is manifested through his love for his concubine Yu Ji. As is tradition, the (dan) female role was played by a male, the tender, graceful Hu Shenyan in toe shoes. The award-winning Chinese film “Farewell My Concubine” (1993) presented this episode in its plot within a plot.

The eleven-member ensemble of men and women was exceptional as they danced their way through sieges, battles and shifting loyalties, with martial arts leaps and flying feet as well as contemporary and hip-hop driven movement. As the last battle is lost, Xiang Yu commits suicide, followed by his loyal concubine. The ensemble of corpses thrashes through the river of blood red feathers, tossing them into the air, like thousands of petals carried by the wind, drifting through space. The wall of scissors comes crashing down, “as they pile down into a mass grave of history.”
Yang Liping Contemporary Dance in 'Under Siege'.

Yang Liping Contemporary Dance in "Under Siege".

Photo © & courtesy of Tristam Kenton

Yang Liping Contemporary Dance in 'Under Siege'.

Yang Liping Contemporary Dance in "Under Siege".

Photo © & courtesy of Li Yi Jian

Yang Liping Contemporary Dance in 'Under Siege'.

Yang Liping Contemporary Dance in "Under Siege".

Photo © & courtesy of Xiao Quan

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