Gia Kourlas, a dance critic for "The New York Times," wrote a decidedly tepid review of a recent performance of "The Peony Pavilion" by the China Jing Ling Dance Company at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center. She did manage some faint praise for what she flippantly called the "trippy" lighting and the costumes that created a "psychedelic universe," which she described this way: "Even when it's tacky, it's incredible." Yet she was not impressed enough with the dancing to say much more than that the understudies who were in for the leads were "gritting their teeth" during the lifts and that the goblin characters seemed "to channel Michael Jackson's 'Thriller.'"
Let me interrupt myself here by saying that Gia rarely likes anything she sees and that I rarely agree with her. But then, Gia doesn't dance. In an April 11th article in the Times she wrote: "My job — it’s a personal rule — means that I don’t belong in dance class anymore; that is a dancer’s sacred space. (Dance critics must join gyms.)"
Leaving aside that I find her "rule" absolutely bizarre, it does explain why she doesn't know what she's looking at on stage. The Jing Ling dancers were exquisite. True enough, the leads rather than the understudies danced the evening I attended, but Gia saw the same corps that I did. How could she not have been entranced? They moved as one – or not, when the choreography called for well-rehearsed confusion.
Not only that, but they are beautifully trained with an obvious ballet base to their technique yet a faultless execution of the classical Chinese style. For example, they could all do perfectly the little heel-to-toe walking steps that make the dancers look as if they're rolling on wheels. I took some classes in NYC from Chen and Dancers and learned that move. It's not easy! I love it though, and I not only mastered it but I teach it in my "Around the World in Dance" residencies for Ballet Ambassadors. The schoolchildren and the teachers are always excited as they work hard to do something that is deceptively simple. Except for the acrobatics, a lot of the Chinese skills are far more challenging than they look.
In fact, that may be another reason Gia missed the magic. The Jing Ling dancers are so good that they make everything appear to be nonchalantly easy. For me, though, that only added to the breathtaking beauty of the production.
A few other points: The tale of young love was written by a contemporary of Shakespeare's, Tang Xianzu, in 1598. Yet while "Romeo & Juliet" is a tragedy, the Chinese story ends happily. The young girl and her suitor fall in love in their dreams, the girls dies when she realizes she can't have him in real life, and then she is resurrected after he falls in love with her self-portrait. When I read that in the program notes, I scoffed. Yet when I saw the action, I was transported into a mystical world and I believed everything that happened. Such is the power of art.
If you ever have the opportunity to see a performance of "The Peony Pavilion," I'm pretty certain that you'll be in my camp and not Gia's. You are dancers, after all. Let her stick to the dumbbells and the Stairmaster. You and I will keep feeding our souls in the studio – a place that Gia calls "a sacred space." Well, at least she got that one right.