Sex, scandal...and ballet

A scene from The Miraculous Mandarin. (Photo: Pat Bromilow-Downing)
A scene from The Miraculous Mandarin. (Photo: Pat Bromilow-Downing)

Cape Town -The Cape Town City Ballet’s production of The Miraculous Mandarin oozes with sleaze and features violence and simulated onstage sex, but it also highlights the redeeming power of love. Eugenie du Preez reviews the production for Channel24.

The stage set is stark and bare, with a window, an open doorway and an iron bedstead on a raised platform. There’s not a moonlit glade or gilded throne in sight, and instead of a tiara and tutu the only female dancer is wearing a sexy red body suit and black garter belt – the unmistakable uniform of a prostitute.

The Miraculous Mandarin tells a tale of violence, thuggery and murder. It’s a scenario that plays out thousands of times in the underbelly of every city in the world - but it’s also a story with a surprisingly tender twist at the end.

The girl’s pimp treats her with roughness and contempt. Two skollies who look as if they come straight from the seediest part of town – one of them sporting a cool set of shades – lurk in the shadows, striking menacing poses.

The girl is made to stand in front of the window and strut her stuff to lure potential victims. The first two – an old man and an innocent-looking young guy – are booted out after they turn out to have nothing worthwhile to steal.

But the third – the mandarin – is clearly loaded, with glittering rings an indication of rich pickings.

Drooling with desire, he chases the girl while she is barely able to hide her revulsion for him.

Eventually, the mandarin is stripped to his underwear and relieved of all his valuables. The thugs try to kill him no less than three times– but to their astonishment (and the mirth of the audience at their expressions of disbelief) he refuses to die.

Finally the prostitute, an unwilling accomplice to all this shocking violence, has a change of heart. She embraces the mandarin and after they perform the deed of love - depicted tastefully with a few stylised poses - he finally falls down and succumbs to his wounds.

In the words of Ashley Killar, who wrote the ballet, the girl shows “a tenderness that makes her alliance with the mandarin more understandable; they are two natural forces in the midst of the corrupt city that surrounds them”.

Surprisingly, the music to this sordid and violent story was composed as early as 1919 by the Hungarian Bela Bartok. At its first performance in Cologne it created a scandal and was banned by outraged citizens. The ballet was not given regular stage performances until the 1940s.

This, explains Killar, was “because of the violent nature of the plot, whose underlying message about the power of human love includes, perhaps, implicit social criticism”.

I was blown away by this powerful performance with its contemporary setting, forceful social message and complete relevance in a country where corruption and misrule are the order of the day.

*The Miraculous Mandarin is one of three contrasting ballets, each portraying a different aspect of love, which make up the Cape Town City Ballet’s programme of Shades of Love. It will be performed at the Artscape Theatre until 22 May. Because of its adult subject matter, The Miraculous Mandarin will be replaced at matinee performances.

(Photos: Pat Bromilow-Downing)