Ballet and dance

NCPA: Marco Polo

Date: September 21, 2011
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Choreography by Chen Weiya

Marco Polo, a dance drama, is a cooperation between the NCPA and China Oriental Performing Arts Group, one of the premier commercial art enterprises in China.

Marco Polo, the Venetian merchant, visited China during which Kublai Khan ruled. The dance drama, expanding upon this episode, is structured as a love story between the Venetian merchant and Khan’s daughter. As the two falls in love, Marco Polo is also awed by the great inventions and virtues of Chinese society. The story ends when Khan decides to give away his daughter in a diplomatic marriage to maintain peace.

Choreographer and director Chen Weiya (陈维亚) has said that Marco Polo is not an attempt to completely retrace the story of Marco Polo the merchant, but an attempt to find and express “the surprise, cheer and passion of a westerner when he discovers oriental culture.”  In that respect, Chen’s work is a triumph: the production presents the cultural and technological advances of the Chinese, basking the entire civilization in a courageous, advanced light. In the second Act, dancers acted as Chinese printers and showed Marco Polo how the printing press worked. Two dancers acting as a Chinese medicinal master and an acupuncture model engaged in an impressive pas de deux-like sequence where the master would flip, roll, wrap the model into different positions and showed the traveler how the positioning of the needle affected nerves and muscles. In another ensemble sequence, half a dozen consumers in a noodle shop moved in unison, excited by the mastery display of a master chef pulling and twisting noodle dough in an expertly acrobatic display. Mick Zeni, as Marco Polo, and Yin Shuo (殷硕), as Khan’s daughter, had numerous jaw-droppingly impressive duets, including one in the penultimate scene when she was about to leave him. In that scene, his display of enormous physical strength, tempered by his haplessness in her impending departure, provided a succulent counterpoint to her portrayal of an outward frailty but an inward strength — that strength coming from knowing that her sacrifice would spare the life of thousands of her subjects.

Zhang Qianyi (张千一) composed the score, with crisp rhythms and smooth junctures that bridge one scene to the next. Some musical themes evoked memories of Elmer Bernstein and Virgil Thomson, especially in those scenes where Marco Polo was shown traveling great distances to the east. The third Act, which revealed the state of war and the emotional turmoil generated by the impending diplomatic marriage, referenced some thematic and militaristic elements in Shostakovich’s Fifth and Eleventh symphonies. Set designer Gao Guangjian (高广健) provided an overly splendid display that highlighted the figurative rather than literal realities of Kublai Khan’s dynastic glory. Lighting designer Vladimir Lukasevich was a master painter of light, shading Gao’s set with superbly effective emotional colorings.

Mick Zeni, as Marco Polo.

Mick Zeni, as Marco Polo.

Dancers in Kublai Khan's palace.

Dancers in Kublai Khan’s palace.

Yin Shuo, as Kublai Khan's daughter.

Yin Shuo, as Kublai Khan’s daughter.