• Image about Nanjing
A magical scene from The Peony Pavilion, depicting two young lovers separated by death but still struggling to be together

Love, Actually

They call it the Ming Ring, China’s equivalent to Wagner’s epic four-opera Ring of the Nibelung. In its original form, The Peony Pavilion could certainly contend in length: The traditional Kunqu opera ran 20 hours long to the Ring’s 15. But the themes of the two works of art could not be more different. Instead of Wagner’s bombastic saga of gods and their dominion over the earth, The Peony Pavilion, even in its longest form, is simply about love.

The love story is at the heart of the China Jinling Dance Company’s version of The Peony Pavilion (also known by its Chinese name, Mudan Ting). The performance boils Peony down to 90 minutes of pure dance, distilled from its traditional long mix of song, dance and poetry. Less verbal and less verbose, the production allows the story itself to take center stage. Despite some stunning ensemble dancing and a string of beautiful sets, the tale stays focused tightly on two young lovers who first meet in a dream, then are separated by death only to (spoiler alert) reunite again in the land of the living.

The PeonyPavilion will be presented atthe David H. Koch Theaterat Lincoln Centerin New York City fromJan. 5-8, 2012. For tickets,call (212) 496-0600or go towww.davidhkochtheater.org

The play is a quintessential Nanjing artifact. The Peony Pavilion is set there in part. Its author, Tang Xianzu, had a long career as a bureaucrat in Nanjing and elsewhere before he retired to write, as many philosopher-politicians of the era did.

Despite the age of the play (it was first performed in 1598), the story still resonates in the modern world. After all, it’s about the wishes and intrigues of teenagers, especially of the heroine Du Liniang, who decides that she would rather die than live without her man. The close focus on teenage love, with a healthy dose of the supernatural, seems more like something from the Twilight series than a 400-year-old play.

And yet, the experience of seeing it live, with a first-ever U.S. performance by the four dozen elite Jinling dancers, goes far beyond anything you could see on the small screen. Come for the love story, as they say, but stay for the dance.