Dance remembers last emperor

IVAN Cavallari is one of those rare contemporary choreographers to have had the satisfaction of seeing his major work performed over and over again.

“The Last Emperor”

Members of the Liaoning Ballet performing in “The Last Emperor”.

The Italian-born creator is now the artistic director for the West Australian Ballet, so will have the double satisfaction of having his spectacular work “The Last Emperor” seen throughout Australia in a touring production soon to hit Canberra.
Readers will know the famous Bertolucci film “The Last Emperor”, starring John Lone as China’s tormented last emperor, Puyi.
It was this film, viewed by Cavallari years ago when he working with the Stuttgart Ballet, that inspired him to turn this dramatic story into dance. He had also visited the Forbidden City, a further stimulus, despite the imagination-crushing blue uniforms he saw all around him at the time.
“I read everything I could about Puyi,” Cavallari tells me.
Eventually he tracked down a book in a London bookshop that filled in the private life of the character, especially as he related to the mentorship of the Johnstons, then began looking into Chinese musical influences and “working out the dramaturgy”.
Cavallari chose Chinese-style music for the first act, set behind the walls of the Forbidden City, and the more revolutionary music of Shostakovich for the second act.
To him, the most inviting aspect was the extraordinary range of experiences Puyi endured, from his childhood as emperor at the age of three to his adulthood as the puppet king of the Japanese in Manchukuo and then as a private citizen of China.
Other dramatic highlights include the forced separation of Puyi from his beloved nurse and later from his tutor, as well as the frustrations experienced by his two wives.
Initially, Chinese authorities frowned upon the exercise, since at the time Puyi was an unpopular figure in the official imagination. But suddenly there was a change of heart and now “The Last Emperor” has been running for 10 years, initially with 60 performers but now with a tighter case for touring.
To do it, he needed a special company, and he found it in regional China. Established in 1980, the Liaoning Ballet stages modern ballets with Chinese characteristics.
“It is definitely a classically trained company”, Cavallari says. To him, it offered not only a regional understanding of Puyi’s story, but also lots of male dancers to play soldiers, eunuchs and the like. And it paid off. He never ceases to be amazed by their capacity for facial and emotional expression, more than he regularly finds in Western dancers.
It is, he stressed, essentially a ballet, not a folkloric Chinese dance. “When I was choreographing it, the truth is I just responded to the music and did what I felt”.
“The Last Emperor”, Canberra Theatre Centre, June 14-16. Bookings to 6275 2700 or


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