The West

The mask lifted
The mask lifted

A Chinese ballet company is touring the east coast for the first time due to the creative efforts of Ivan Cavallari, the artistic director of WA Ballet.

The Liaoning Ballet, based in Shenyang in north-east China, will present Cavallari's The Last Emperor, based on the extraordinary tale of Puyi, who was pronounced emperor at the age of three.

Cavallari says he was inspired to create the ballet after seeing the Bertolucci film of the same name in the late 1980s while a dancer and choreographer with the Stuttgart Ballet. Further inspired by a visit to China, and having read a biography of Puyi, Cavallari determined that he would find a company that would help him realise his dream of bringing the ballet to life.

Through a Chinese agent in Stuttgart, Cavallari was put in touch with the Liaoning Ballet, which had already developed a reputation for adapting renowned traditional ballets such as Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Cinderella and Giselle for Chinese audiences.

In 2002 his version of The Last Emperor premiered in China, and toured Europe.

Cavallari recently returned to the Liaoning Ballet to rework the ballet for its first Australian tour which started in Brisbane on June 9 and winds up in Sydney on July 8. Perth is not on the itinerary.

One of Cavallari's tasks was restoring many of the cuts that were demanded by the Chinese authorities in 2002. "I was told by the company's director that the authorities would not allow some of the scenes when I first choreographed the ballet, and they made others after I left China," he says.

At one point a relative of Puyi threatened legal action to stop the family story being told but according to Cavallari, the threat came to nothing.

"The ballet was created at a time when China was just beginning its economic improvements and The Last Emperor was one of the first cultural exchanges with the West," he says. "Had I been able to choreograph the ballet now I think the scenes would have been acceptable.

"So revisiting the work I've been able to restore some of the work and actually improve some of the scenes. Now it's a two-act ballet instead of three acts, which is more suitable for touring."

Raised in the Forbidden City, Puyi's upbringing and role as emperor is a remarkable story of tragedy and resilience. He was married off to the Empress Wan Rong as a teenager, exiled during the early Chinese Republic, reinstated as a puppet king by the Japanese invaders and sent to a Siberian prison camp by the liberating Russians at the end of World War II, before finally being allowed to return to China.

He died in 1967, having spent the latter part of his life as a private citizen who tended gardens.

"It became clear to me that the ballet had to be based on the human aspect of the emperor and the important people in his life. Of particular importance was his relationship with his tutor Reginald Johnston as a young boy, and the relationships with his two wives and the love he had for his first concubine."

"The emperor was a person who had to wear a mask his whole life and could never be himself, not even at the end. In a way, I wanted to free him through dancing."

The ballet begins with Puyi being given the title of emperor at the age of three - symbolically represented as an image of a three-year-old on a screen, dancers of that age being hard to find. The first act follows his upbringing in the Forbidden City, his marriage to the empress ("he had to choose her from a picture" says Cavallari), her imprisonment and death in prison after becoming addicted to opium, and his ousting as emperor.

The second act follows his return as emperor of Manchuria after the Japanese invasion, his exile to Siberia and his final days as a civilian.

Cavallari says he wanted to use Chinese- influenced music in the first act, with the music of Russian composer Shostakovich for the second act. "Shostakovich's music is appropriate because he also went through the same kind of repression during the Russian dictatorship as Puyi did under the Japanese and then the Russians," says Cavallari.

"Puyi was practically a prisoner of the Japanese in Manchuria in his second period as emperor. There's so much interesting material in his story to draw on. In his first life as emperor he had so many servants that he couldn't even put on his shoes by himself. Then later he had to live as a private citizen under the communist regime of Mao."

The West Australian

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