After the collapse of the Qin dynasty, the Western Chu and Han forces struggled for dominance over China, culminating in a bloody battle that gave rise to the Han dynasty’s reign. In Under Siege, creator, choreographer, and dancer Yang Liping captures her vision of the final Battle of Gaixia in a breathtaking contemporary performance.

Sitting amongst chattering patrons and plastic wine glasses before the lights dim is a sensory experience in itself; the set, designed by Academy Award winner Tim Yip, rounds the production with cinematic flair. Hundreds of scissors hang dangerously above the stage, drawing audible gasps before the narrator, Xiao He (Guo Yi), begins the story. Two on-stage performers aggressively duel with lutes while the lights are up, preparing the audience for the coming conflict.

Yang’s choreography strikes a balance of soft beauty and formidable militarism to a dynamic and sweeping score that foregrounds the moments of love and death, victory and loss. The sensation of unease builds through the narrator’s response to the inevitable outcome of the battle – the expiry of an army and their ambitions.

For the predominantly English-speaking audience, visual surtitles help guide the action. A drum-set, placed just before the stage, thumps like a countdown, while dancers in black uniforms embrace dizzying gymnastic choreography. It is a brilliant fusion of more traditional Chinese theatre, reminiscent of Peking or Cantonese Opera, and highly stylised combative dance.

Yang herself was present for the opening night, taking the final bow of the evening to a standing ovation and thunderous applause. She is well-known and respected in China as a dancer and choreographer, winning many major awards for her previous works. The success of her projects is a testament to that, and Under Siege is no exception. The closing fight sequence is a magnificent spectacle of piles of blood-red feathers scattering as bodies tumble and dive through them, disappearing and re-appearing as the siege comes to its end.

While some details of the story are lost in the action and mesmerising staging, the production is a powerful reimagining of an incredibly significant piece of China’s history. To enhance the viewing experience, it is strongly recommended audience members read the provided backstory prior to attending to ensure they can follow the narrative as it plays out.

Under Siege is a confronting work that marries a visually striking design, composite dance and an historic story to create a must-see production. Under Siege next moves to Melbourne Festival from October 5-8. Secure your tickets here.

Abby Kong

Author: Abby Kong

Abby Kong is a Brisbane-based writer currently studying a double degree in Law and Fine Arts with a major in creative writing at QUT. She has been published in Australian Short Stories and has a particular interest in cultural writing. She loves politics, theatre and dogs.

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