According to the programme notes London Mayor Boris Johnson feels that Shanghai Ballet is “one of the world’s great ballet companies”. Without questioning Mr Johnson’s undoubtedly encyclopaedic balletic knowledge, this may be taking it a tad too far but they certainly have a decent set of dancers and Jane Eyre, despite a few peculiarities, is an interesting and unusual piece of work.
Patrick De Bana has followed Charlotte Brontë’s original novel fairly religiously but has given more emphasis to the role of Bertha Mason, Mr Rochester’s mad wife who he leaves locked up in the attic. This works extremely well and actually gives the piece its emotional heart – the distressing love me/leave me relationship between her and Rochester is beautifully drawn and rather overshadows Jane’s more coy approach to romance.
Without overdoing the melodrama, Fan Xiaofeng was excellent as Bertha; she prowled the stage like an abandoned cat uncertain whether she wanted to dig her claws into Rochester or be gently stroked by him. Jane’s character doesn’t really get going until after the interval when she has to face her own trials and tribulations. Xiang Jieyan was neat and tidy in her movement, reflecting the eponymous heroine’s mouse-like character in the book, but there’s no great release of her love for Rochester. Wu Husheng’s Rochester also slavishly follows the book, which is a little unfortunate as he’s a cold inexpressive individual which works great against the fiery passion of Bertha but, in a ballet packed with long pas de deux, sometimes came across a bit damp with Jane.
There was a small corps of strong and athletic men that were inventively employed. Tying in with gothic notions of the landscape and the elements being visible indicators of a character’s state of mind, they were particularly effective when used as flames and also as surprisingly mobile rocks who interfered with Jane’s chaotic escape from Rochester’s house in a terrific sequence of drags and lifts.
Parts of the story were baffling; who was the really creepy Grudge-like girl who accompanied Jane’s entrance and who mysteriously disappeared about half-way through? Why was Richard Mason (Bertha’s brother) dressed like John Travolta? And why did the three the main protagonists strip down to their undies at the end?
The music was all over the place, swaying from Tudor lute music to Clair de Lune to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, and Jerome Kaplan’s costumes were a veritable pick and mix of styles plucked from various centuries. Presumably this was a way of saying that the story is timeless, as relevant today as ever, and to be fair neither was particularly distracting (and the voluminous skirts of the dresses in the party scene were gorgeous). Kaplan’s staging was simple and sharpened the focus on the performers’ qualities.
Despite all its foibles, it was great to see a serious attempt at a new full-length ballet constructed in a mainly classical idiom. De Bana has intelligently thrown a new perspective onto an old story and has successfully created characters the audience care about. That’s not bad going.