The Embroidery Girl is a balletic work that encompasses traditional Chinese forms of performance, along with a narrative based on a fable set at the end of the Qing dynasty in the 1910s. While its basic premise is a tragic love story, there is a pervasive and fundamental theme of freedom that provides a solemn resonance that grounds the production. The work does not consciously present itself as a Westernised theatrical form. Instead, we see a show that is thoroughly Chinese, but with a sense of evolution that is shaded by international influences. The work reflects the opening up of societies in China to external cultures, but without an urgency to lose their own.
The company’s style is operatic. The performers on stage do not sing, but there is a strong emphasis on portraying emotional intensity, not just with physicality but also with their faces. To Australian eyes, these are highly exaggerated expressions and do take a little getting used to. The production features four principal dancers, all of whom are charismatic and technically proficient. Leading lady Zhang Yashu is heart and soul of the show, and plays the tortured Xiu Niang whose predicaments are illustrated with rich and dynamic choreography over the 90 minute program. Zhang’s work is precise and powerful, with a luminescence that not only lights up the majestic State Theatre, but also supremely commanding. The ensemble is relegated to playing slightly more than scenery when supporting Zhang. The images she creates with her body and spirit, are sublimely beautiful.
Visual design is accomplished. Lighting is especially thoughtful, giving the show mood, romance and emotion, as well as efficiently and cleverly depicting time and spacial transitions. Costumes are not always elegant but they are effective at providing context and assist greatly with characterisations. Music is expertly created and performed but sadly, not live. Choreography is particularly strong in partner work where lyricism is blended with sharp, abrupt movement for a modern twist. Sections tend to be short, which makes the show feel energetic and exciting.
The Embroidery Girl is grand and fascinating. For Western audiences, its cultural difference possesses an exoticism that reads as colourful and distinctive. Beyond the allure of the unfamiliar, we relate to the universal themes of romantic love, and the pursuit of personal emancipation. Aristotle wrote that the purpose of tragedy is to evoke a wonder born of pity and fear, the result of which is cathartic. Xiu Niang receives very little of what she desires, but Zhang Yashu’s dance for us is inspiring and uplifting.