Hong Kong Dance Company
Hong Kong, Cultural Centre, Grand Theatre
16 August 2013
A version of this review previously appeared in the South China Morning Post
For its latest production Hong Kong Dance Company staged the local premiere of the award-winning Masquerade, originally created in 2009 by choreographer/director Ding Wei for the Guizhou Dance and Song Theatre. Described as a “Grand Ethnic Dance Drama” it combines folk-based dance and masked performers from the unique Nuo tradition with a touching love story that has echoes of Romeo and Juliet plus a touch of Phantom of the Opera. The show is lively, entertaining and features stand-out performances in the leading roles.
Nuo culture is as ancient as China itself, going back thousands of years to rites and rituals used by agrarian communities to ward off demons, pray for good harvests, bring rain and so forth. At its heart lay ritual dances led by Shaman-like figures who, it was believed, could communicate with both gods and men, acting as messengers between the two. Nuo dance and opera are famous for the extraordinary masks – ranging from the beautiful to the grotesque – worn by the performers.
In Masquerade, the hero Cang is a Nuo dancer whose mask serves a double purpose – he uses it to hide his badly-scarred face and never lets himself be seen without it. Despite this Chen, the prettiest girl in the village, falls in love with him and he with her, much to the dismay of the handsome Mao who has been courting Chen with her parents’ blessing. When she refuses to marry Mao and declares her love for Cang, the jealous suitor tries to shoot him with a bow and Chen is killed when she steps in front of her lover to protect him. The piece ends with a mesmerising effect of snow falling on the stage against a dark winter sky as Cang mourns his beloved’s death.
Ding has interwoven this doomed romance with a sequence of scenes depicting the four seasons, beginning and ending with Winter. Each is based around rousing folk-dance routines and features a Nuo ritual dance led by Cang. The choreography is packed with powerfully rhythmic ensembles performed with tremendous verve by the whole company (here expanded with the addition of guest artists from its own 30 dancers to nearly 60), while Cang, Mao and the Nuo dancers show off the thrilling leaps and spins Chinese male dance is renowned for.
As long as Ding and his composer Li Cangsang stick to dance and music drawn from ethnic traditions they are right on target. However, they falter in a couple of scenes where the music takes a jarring detour into Broadway territory and the choreography follows it. Cang’s collection of masks come to life in a routine reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video and the Spring section opens with a number which looks and sounds like a hoedown which would not be out of place in Oklahoma. There is also some ill-judged use of back-projection which is unnecessary and distracts from the dancing. The painfully trite shots of fluttering butterflies during the ecstatic duet where Chen finally sees and accepts Cang’s scarred face are particularly irritating and should be cut.
Liu Yinghong is riveting as Cang – always an exceptional artist, the role gives full reign to the fluidity, control and expressiveness of his dancing. His impassioned solo at the beginning of the Autumn sequence is remarkable for its sustained intensity. When Chen dies he dances with her lifeless body as Romeo does with Juliet – having seen many versions of this, Liu produces the most unbearably poignant moment I can remember: he props her up against him with her head on his shoulder and a radiant smile spreads over his face – for just a second he can believe she’s still alive before her body slowly crumples to the ground and his anguish returns.
Chen shows a welcome new side to Tang Ya – in previous roles she has danced well but often seemed too passive; here she comes into her own with a spirited, individual portrayal of a strong, feisty character. A stunning move in her duets with Liu where she bends all the way back until her head is supported on his lower leg displays her amazing plasticity. Chen Jun’s Mao is vividly etched – clearly not the brightest bulb in the village and quite unable to grasp why any girl would reject him – and splendidly danced, with powerful, virile leaps (the barrel jumps were particularly fine).