June 25, 2018

Legend of the Sun – Chinese dance drama at Sadler’s Wells

To celebrate Chinese New Year last weekend Sadler’s Wells hosted Legend of the Sun, a vibrant, large-scale dance drama from China. Performed by the Nanning Arts Theatre and directed by Ding Wei, it tells a myth of the Zhuang people, from centuries ago when tie-dye was a popular fashion statement.

A group of villagers are happy in the warmth of a spotlight, sorry, the sun. For reasons unclear this is taken away from them. Luckily they know where to get it back, but it is a long way away, far beyond the horizon. Who should go and get it? The elders? the youths? the children?Attitudes were obviously different back then – for this arduous task they choose a pregnant woman.

The myth might be ancient, but the programme retells it with communist hyperbole, explaining how the play portrays the ‘Zhuang people’s ceaseless pursuit of happiness and their bravery against hardship’. What we get is a dancing road trip as our plucky heroine heads off into the unknown, overcoming everything thrown at her like the hero of a blockbuster movie, albeit more gracefully and with less resort to violence.

Li Ying stars as Ma the plucky mother-to-be who leaves home to bring back the sun. As she sets off on her mission the rest of the cast celebrate her departure, before becoming obstacles she must overcome. It’s a long journey – on the way she gives birth to a son Le. He grows up, falls in love, and has to witness his mother’s death. Still the destination hasn’t been reached. It turns out it’s a long way to the horizon.

Much of the dancing is ensemble choreography reminiscent of the opening ceremonies of large sporting events. This is particularly true of a dance of nine women all with long black hair shaking their manes in synchronisation. The props are extremely literal – large leaves are wheeled around the stage, leopards have spotted trousers.

The big ensemble has lots of costume changes, showcasing the bright designs by Mai Qing. Some movements are very effective such as when a young Le’s hands flutter in fear. Others are less so – has grief ever made a mother look down at the child she thinks is dead and stick a leg up in the air behind her? Some of the emotional dancing is over-egged, Le’s grief when his mother dies a prime example. The music by Liu Gangbao and Liu Kexin is bombastic and loves a crescendo. Look out for the Dance of the coal scuttles, it was my highlight – though it probably has a different name in Chinese.

Those with deep interest in Chinese myths will be delighted, others will find it hard to appreciate the heroic proletariat rhetoric and will wish the lengthy journey much shorter.

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