Under Siege

Charlene Li

Under Siege marries tradition and inventiveness in a superbly crafted masterpiece
Under Siege

Under Siege, from China's Yang Liping Contemporary Dance, is a multidisciplinary dance spectacle from an improbably stellar team. Creatives include the likes of Tim Yip, who's won an Oscar for his work on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; installation artist Beili Liu, and choreographer Yang Liping – a household name in China for her solos such as Spirit of the Peacock and Moon. It's easy to assume that the cumulative potential here is impossible to fulfill, but this and other preconceptions swiftly dissipate upon entering the theatre. As the audience files into the venue, the scene is already set, with two Chinese lutists in billowy white costumes playing classical Chinese music against a shimmering silver backdrop. In the corner a young woman in a silk robe cuts out Chinese characters from paper, and suspended above are hanging rows of scissors, reflecting the light in such a way to resemble icicles

The story loosely depicts the historic Battle of Gaixia – an event that occupies the space of both history and fable in the consciousness of the ethnic Chinese – and the circumstances leading up to it; at its a core a power struggle between two rival warlords, Xiang Yu, a noble born tyrant, and the peasant born Liu Bang, future emperor of the Han Dynasty. The choreography devised by Yang Liping in collaboration with her dancers spans a wide breadth of genres and physical disciplines encompassing martial arts, acrobatics, contemporary ballet, as well as Yang Liping's own idiosyncratic style.

Each of the of the dancers are highly technically skilled, even by professional dance standards, performing acrobatic feats such as backflips with a grace and elevation so as to appear almost supernatural. As an ensemble, their versatility and ability to express the range of contrasting movement qualities that appear in the choreography throughout the work is remarkable. As armour-clad warriors their movements range from gentle and tranquil for the tai chi inspired sequences to fierce and frenetic for the battle scenes, at other times still appearing regimented and precise. Towards the end the ensemble appear in flesh-coloured leotards as creatures of the underworld, undulating and writhing in serpentine fashion. The character of the statesman Xiao He reappears throughout the show as narrator and motif, cryptically hinting at what's to come in the Peking Opera style (accompanied by surtitles), evoking theatricality and history.

Under Siege is neither a traditional Chinese dance work nor is it a postmodern rehashing of a traditional tale; it is a work that celebrates history and tradition without being bound by convention. The myriad of traditional art forms that appear on stage are enhanced by modern stage technology – used sparingly, but to its full capacity. While the choreography is filled with movement from martial arts, Tai Chi, and Chinese dance, there are also elements of Western contemporary dance and ballet.

The two warlords each dazzle in their character framing solos, bringing with them a palpable wave of energy as they appear on stage. He Shang as the noble born Xiang Yu is cool and sinister, exuding a sense of prestige and power that's understated but lethal. He Shang's effortless execution of the fiendishly fast, acrobatic choreography combined with his characterisation imbues his performance with a god-like quality. Completing the character is his costume, a stately black robe that cuts striking silhouettes on stage. Gong Zhonghui as Liu Bang is in contrast hot-headed and passionate, bursting on stage in a flurry of raw energy and explosive acrobatic tricks. His naked ambition is intimated in a much more revealing costume comprising of a ornate, gold head piece, gold pants, and shimmery gold make-up on his exposed torso. Side by side they make for a fascinating exercise contrasts, being starkly different to each other despite having much in common. This is further illustrated in in the confrontation scene where they first meet; a large chunk of the duo has the two warlords performing the same choreography in unison, yet appearing as starkly different to each other as night and day.

Xiang Yu's concubine Yu Ji is introduced in an ethereal contemporary ballet solo performed by male dancer Hu Shenyuan, a striking departure from the scenes preceding it. Arabesques, developpes and generous extensions melt into fluid contemporary floor work, performed with grace, control and an otherwordly sense of feminity.

The sets, costumes and visual design by Tim Yip are a feast for the senses from start to finish. Each second is a photo-worthy frame, glittering with opulent detail. The scenes towards the end are strikingly poetic beyond description; waves of billowy magenta engulf Xiang Yu as he departs the mortal world, and the underworld is adorned with a sea of red feathers that languidly shift in response to the dancers' movements – as if underwater, or in a dimension where time doesn't exist.

Lighting from Fabiana Piccioli is beautifully moody and creatively unconventional – there are scenes where lights appear on stage, not just shining at it. Xiang Yu's solo is lit in steely blue-grey whereas Liu Bang's entrance is illuminated by tones of warm gold, complimenting his character as well as his costume. Yu Ji's solo is performed under a large white spotlight suspended on stage, creating unforgettable atmosphere and playing against the contours of his body. The rows of scissors from artist Beili Liu shift from scene to scene, and can appear as leaves, clouds, or flames according to the way they catch the light.

Under Siege is simply one-of-a-kind; a superbly crafted gem that surpasses even the highest expectations in its genre-defying inventiveness. Its edifying and entertaining, visually beautiful and emotionally arresting, a marriage of tradition and inventiveness. The visual beauty, composition and element of surprise that strikes the audience as they enter the theatre is sustained throughout the entire work, and crescendos. It has all the makings of a timeless classic.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5

Under Siege
Yang Liping Contemporary Dance
Artistic Director/Choreographer: Yang Liping
Artist & Creative Consultant: Beili Liu
Producer: Nathan Wang
Lighting Designer: Fabiana Piccioli
Visual Director, Set & Costume Designer: Tim Yip
International Creative Producer: Farooq Chaudhry
Dramaturg: Karthika Nair

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
5-8 October 2017

Melbourne Festival 2017
4-22 October 2017

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Charlene Li is an arts junkie with a few too many interests. She thinks the Brisbane arts scene is Australia's best kept secret.