The Last EmperorIt would be understandable if The Last Emperor fell short of expectations. The scope of both the production itself and the narrative it conveys is so unrepentantly gargantuan that Liaoning Ballet and choreographer Ivan Cavallari could be forgiven for failing to realise the full extent of their combined ambitions. Similarly, it would be surprising if some audience members didn’t get a little lost within the work’s sprawling and layered visual aesthetic.

Make no mistake; The Last Emperor is work of astonishingly vast proportions. Chronicling the life and times of China’s final emperor Puyi, The Last Emperor’s multi-layered narrative traverses over half a century of political and personal upheaval – Puyi gradually transitioning from ruling a nation in his infancy to being ousted from governance entirely in his old age while enduring countless personal hardships and confronting the increasingly complex issue of Western influence within his empire.

The production itself, meanwhile, is massive in every sense of the word. Ivan Cavallari’s choreography demands scores of dancers for the chorus numbers alone while the technical aspects of the work can only fairly be characterised as sumptuous – elaborate costuming, stunning lighting and beautiful (albeit relatively austere) set pieces. One could spend hours discussing the clever intricacies of the work’s score alone.

Given such scope, one almost expects a certain degree of over-reaching.

Surprisingly, though, such cynicism proves largely unfounded. While not without its own share of shortcomings, The Last Emperor transcends significantly more than it disappoints. Together, Cavallari and Liaoning have crafted a work of not only considerable ambition but remarkable finesse. There is an eye for detail at play within the production which ensures an appeal beyond that of mere shock and spectacle.

This is most obvious in the work’s grasp of narrative and drama. While Cavallari has choreographed some absolutely beautiful sequences (an introductory ensemble performance, in particular, proving absolutely mesmerising), his greatest accomplishment with The Last Emperor is his condensing and communication of Puyi’s remarkable life story into a clear narrative arc. Even for those unfamiliar with the one-time emperor’s story, Puyi’s sprawling background is easily discerned.

The nuances employed in realising said narrative, meanwhile, are nothing short of remarkable. Without resorting to outright polemic, Cavallari has managed to embed clever commentaries on politics, romance, colonialism and identity within the work’s broader tapestry. No mean feat given the absence of text and speech. Particularly remarkable is the tackling of Puyi’s brief tenure as political puppet – Hitler-moustached dancers carefully manipulating the emperor’s every decision in an unsettling mix of comedy and malignance.

Strangely, what shortcomings the work does possess are largely related to the dancing. Aside from perhaps one too many ensemble pieces (which too often seem implemented for the sake of spectacle as opposed to narrative or drama), there are some surprisingly lapses in technique within the performance. Solos and duets are performed immaculately but larger, more unison-driven pieces would occasionally be marred by issues of timing or just simply imprecise performance. In fairness, though, such lapses were very much in the minority.

The most interesting aspect of the production was its relationship with emotion. For the majority of the piece, there is very little in the way of catharsis or empathy. The dancers of Liaoning Ballet tend to eschew explicit emotional expression in favour of letting certain movements embody their emotional state. As a result, the work often passes in a strangely detached wash of images and interactions. It’s quite surreal. The drama is muffled – like one is watching events transpire from underwater or across a great distance.

Yet, the conclusion is beyond evocative. A three-way performance between the three separate incarnations of Puyi featured in the play (the child emperor, the Imperial ruler and the westernised outcast), The Last Emperor’s conclusion is so inexplicably visceral as to move one almost to tears. Whether it’s something in the movements themselves or simply the stark representation of Puyi’s life and losses laid out on stage, the piece manages to shift the entire emotional dynamic of the production in an instant.

What’s interesting about the shift is that it suggests the emotionally restrained aspects of the performance were a deliberate stylistic choice on the part of the creators – which suggests a level of creative craftsmanship and precision one would not directly associate with a production of such proportions.

Needless to say, this is a work well worth investigating.

XDR (Australia) Cultural Promotion presents

Choreographed by Ivan Cavallari

Lyric Theatre QPAC
Dates: June 9 - 11, 2011
Times: Thurs 9, Fri 10 at 7.30pm, Sat 11 at 1.30pm & 7.30pm
Bookings: | 136 246

Venue: Princess Theatre
Dates: June 18 - 22, 2011
Times: Sat 18, Wed 22 at 8pm, Tues 21 at 7pm, Sun 19 at 2pm
Bookings: | 1300 111 011

Venue: Newcastle Civic Theatre
Date: June 29, 2011
Time: 8pm
Bookings: | 49 29 19 77

Venue: Canberra Theatre Centre
Dates: June 14 - 16, 2011
Times: Tues 14, Thurs 16 at 8pm, Wed 15 at 2pm & 8pm
Bookings: | 02 6275 2700

Venue: Adelaide Entertainment Centre
Date: June 25, 2011
Times: Sat 25 at 2pm & 8pm
Bookings: | 132 849

Venue: State Theatre
Dates: July 2 - 8, 2011
Times: Sat 2 July 8pm, Sun 3 at 2pm, Thurs 7, Fri 8 at 8pm
Bookings: | 136 100

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