You could say the Guangzhou Ballet’s very existence is a case of East meets West. For the program of Western-style ballet presented by the Chinese company this weekend at the David H Koch Theater, it was a case of West meets East and East meets West yet again. Canadian choreographer Peter Quanz’s adaptation of Chinese composer Du Mingxin’s violin concerto Goddess of Luo River and Chinese-American choreographer Jiang Qi’s transformation of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana (which was based on the bawdy song of poems of medieval monks) into something contemporary and Chinese proves the universality of music and dance. They also provided quite a striking program that showcased the artistry and athleticism of the Guangzhou Ballet of China in their New York City debut, made possible by the China Arts and Entertainment Group.
The original Goddess of Luo River written by poet Cao Zhi chronicled the tragic romance between said goddess and a mortal man. However, Quanz and the Guangzhou company reinterpret it as a much more upbeat affair. Of course, there is still plenty of dramatic pairings of the prima and secondary leads. In fact, even the small “chorus” section gets plenty of impressive choreography to show off their chops, which is true of Burana as well.
Thoughout Goddess, the leads practically seem to bounce off the stage, almost like they have springs in the soles of their feet. That high energy level definitely makes it an attention-grabbing ice-breaker. Plus, Anne Armit’s striking backdrop, evoking the look and texture of Chinese scroll painting, provides the sort of class and sophistication you would hope for from an afternoon at the ballet.
While Goddess ran for about a concerto-long half-hour, the three-part Carmina Burana lasts well over an hour. Based on the secular songs composed by 11th and 12th Century Bavarian monks on subjects they should not have known very much about, including boozing, carousing, love-making, and war-fighting, Carmina Barana inspired Orff’s cantata. You might not know it by title, but you will recognize the “O Fortuna” intro and reprise, which is often used in films whenever they need a really thunderous piece of music
The Guangzhou company and Jiang use the star-crossed romance of Helena and Bolanzifaluo as a through-line, but it is not really a narrative-driven piece. Instead, it is more a collection of impressionistic vignettes that illustrate love, loss, and the power of nature. Indeed, there is a good deal of striking moon and sun imagery.
Just as in Goddess, the Guangzhou company dazzles. Arguably, Carmina Burana is a better vehicle for traditional ballet grace, rather than the demanding physicality of Goddess. Regardless, everyone on stage gets their share of lifts and releases, so it is fair to say the entire company distinguish themselves with their individual talents. Yet, it is arguably the second lead (in the floral tunic) who most wows and charms the audience.
The choreography is dramatic, the production is classically handsome, and the dancers are like finely tuned instruments. It is everything people go to the ballet for, yet it is also a refreshingly different program than the five or six old standards that get re-staged season after season after season. The Guangzhou company and their choreographers, Quanz and Jiang, deserve credit for giving patrons something new, but in a way that feels both exotic and welcoming. The Guangzhou Ballet’s production of Goddess of Luo River and Carmina Burana is highly recommended for refined and adventurous patrons as their tour continues, following their NYC debut engagement, at the David H Koch Theater, on the Lincoln Center Plaza.