The extraordinary design of Under Siege visually holds one’s attention and interest for the duration of this multi-disciplinary piece of theatre and modern dance, that also demonstrates traditional Chinese story-telling and composition. As we enter the theatre a sea of shimmering silvery steel scissors, hanging from lighting bars in large heavy ad hoc clusters, dominates the stage, swaying in the breeze like a million wind chimes. In the downstage corner sits a woman in a voluminous white gown busily cutting paper images from reams of oversized paper with her scissors. Throughout the show she intermittently holds up various paper images from the huge pile in front of her. These symbols are characters from the Chinese language, with surtitle explanations given at each side of the stage. Tantalisingly few, these translations fortunately introduce each scene and character of the ancient story, even though it was sometimes difficult to follow what was actually happening on stage.

Under SiegeUnder Siege at the Brisbane Festival. Photo supplied.

This work is all about style, with artists, dance, music, design and visuals creatively intertwined to bring about an exceptionally exciting aesthetic whole. The story may be hard to decipher for a Western audience, unused to the conventions of Chinese opera or story-telling, but Artistic Director and Choreographer, Yang Liping, has created ravishing images with her highly talented cast of dancers-come-acrobats. As a choreographer and dancer Yang Liping is one of China’s most revered artists and Under Siege is her first contemporary dance work. In this full-length piece, she has featured a cast that includes Peking Opera principals, hip hoppers and contemporary dancers as well as traditional musicians plucking pipas (Chinese lutes) which produce eerie and often foreboding musical sounds. These traditional Chinese artforms have been melded surprisingly well with Liping’s trademark traditional choreography, alongside contemporary western dance forms and martial arts to create a work of high drama and sensual theatricality.

The basic story is an abstract retelling of the 2,000-year-old battle between warring generals that inspired Farewell My Concubine. The climatic Gaixia battle between the Chu and Han armies, well known to Chinese audiences, involves warriors, Xiang Yu, a Chu tyrant, and Han leader Liu Bang. Both artists were splendid and their highly-stylised fight scenes were marvellously realised. The work is narrated throughout by ‘a great statesman’, Xiao He, magnificently played and sung by Qiu Jirong in Peking opera style utilising the dramatic rise and fall of his vocal lines. His performance was spell-binding adding to the drama and high tension of the work. As Yu Ji, the concubine to Xiang Yu, Hu Shenyuan’s performance was mesmerising and achingly beautiful. His carefully structured, contorted movements were delicate and supple, demonstrating a first-rate technique in his ill-fated role. The farewell duet with his defeated lover was extremely moving, sensitively choreographed and danced and was an emotional highlight of the piece.

Under SiegeUnder Siege at the Brisbane Festival. Photo supplied.

All the dancers were terrific. The battle scenes, which included a chorus of both male and female dancers, demonstrated acrobatic techniques including skills in martial arts, back flips and somersaults, which mirrored the dramatic elements of the score to great effect. The battles were exciting, fast and brilliantly executed. The two artists who portrayed the dark and light sides of the deceptive Han Xin, Pan Yu (white) and Gao Chen (black), mirrored and contrasted his dual-nature well, with their choreographed balletic movements perfectly delivered.

The story-telling was enhanced by Tim Yip’s exquisite set and costume designs and Beili Liu’s astounding visuals. Wonderfully rich Peking Opera masks and head-dresses were balanced by the dark, terracotta-warrior costumes of the armies. The rows of sharp scissors with their blades scraping together might be a metaphor for the bloody battle we are about to witness and their inherent danger was clear. Yet they were also used to create sculptural stage pictures that were quite breath-taking. The rows descended as dangerous forests through which the warriors beat a path, but they were used creatively being sufficiently pliable to rise and fall in surprising ways, thus constantly interesting to watch. The steel material also caught the light in a myriad ways – it could be by turns golden representing power and authority or dark and steely in the battle scenes and richly red and erotic in the scene between Xiang Yu and Yu Ji. The lighting of Fabiana Piccioli was wonderfully atmospheric, not least in the final magical scene where snow drifts of bright red feathers washed across the dead bodies accompanied by ethereal music.

Under SiegeUnder Siege at the Brisbane Festival. Photo supplied.

While stunning in so many ways, perhaps more explanation in the surtitles would have been helpful. Moreover, there was a lull midway through the piece, where it seemed to lose its way, which some prudent cutting might alleviate, before the extraordinary ending in a sea of red.

For a Western audience, this can be a tough evening in the theatre but it is eminently rewarding theatrically and visually clever and exciting on so many levels. It is a terrific piece to bring to a festival.

Under Siege is at QPAC as part of the Brisbane Festival until September 30. It plays at Arts Centre Melbourne as part of the Melbourne Festival October 5 – 8.