Hong Kong Dance Company
Hong Kong, Grand Theatre
23 November 2013
A version of this review previously appeared in the South China Morning Post
2013 has marked a changing of the guard at Hong Kong’s flagship Chinese dance company, Hong Kong Dance Company (HKDC). Veteran artistic director and chief choreographer, Leung Kwok-shing, retired early this year and after a period as Acting AD, Yang Yuntao has been confirmed as his successor. Following a distinguished career as a dancer in China and Hong Kong, Yang has made a successful transition to choreographer in recent years. He will be the troupe’s youngest-ever director and his strong background in contemporary as well as Chinese dance promises a fresh approach in terms of style and repertoire.
For his first production as AD, Yang has re-visited and radically revised his 2008 Mulan. Packed with spectacular dancing, which runs a gamut of references from Chinese opera to Grigorovich’s Spartacus to parkour, the show is exciting and entertaining for adults and children alike.
While internationally best-known from the Disney animated film, the classic folk tale on which the work is based occupies a special place in China, where the original Ballad of Mulan is required learning for every child. Here the production is punctuated at intervals by a group of children reciting sections of the poem with their teacher and bringing back memories for many audience members who were visibly mouthing the words along with them.
The story takes place during a time of turbulence and civil war in ancient China. The men of Mulan’s village are summoned to join the army, but the only male member of her family is her frail, aged father. To save him and defend her country, the young girl disguises herself as a man and becomes a soldier. After fighting heroically for 10 years and being promoted to general, when the war is over Mulan refuses any rewards and returns home to resume her life as a woman.
While this may appear to be a celebration of gender equality, from a Chinese perspective the heroine symbolizes traditional female virtues of filial devotion, humility and self-sacrifice and the production reflects this view. I’d have welcomed a more modern take on the story – the idea that the most moral thing a brave, resourceful young woman can do is abandon a successful career and spend her life at home weaving is a little hard to take in 2013, whether you’re Chinese or European.
Yang and his scenarist, Gerard Tsang, tell the story with directness and economy. The scene where Mulan decides to take her father’s place is particularly effective – we see her remembering how she was taught martial arts by her father as a child (the little girl who performs the role, Lam Tsz-yu, is remarkable) and the deep affection between father and daughter is beautifully conveyed.
The battle scenes which follow are treated in a stylised way – instead of actual fighting, the dancers perform martial arts-based moves and stunts without an opponent – an imaginative approach which works well. In one striking sequence giant ramps are wheeled on stage to represent a fort the troops are attacking. Yang boldly combines elements of parkour and Chinese opera acrobatics as the dancers hurl themselves up or slide down the steep slopes with breathtaking bravura and a fine disregard for personal safety.
After an excellent first half, the second opens strongly on a more sombre note as Mulan reflects on the destruction wrought by war and dreams of going home. Unfortunately the production is let down by an ill-judged ending. The famous scene where Mulan’s former comrades in arms are astounded by the revelation that she’s a woman is barely hinted at (and unlike the Hollywood version, she doesn’t end up happily ever after with her dashing fellow officer).
Instead, for no apparent reason the HKDC children’s troupe suddenly pop up to perform a jolly routine accompanied by more children singing. Good though the youngsters are, the production works as family entertainment without needing this addition and it weakens the impact of a production which calls for a more emotionally satisfying finish.
There is an outstanding performance from Pan Lingjuan in the title role. Diminutive but indomitable, in the battle scenes she dances with a fearlessness worthy of Mulan herself and gives the men a run for their money with some dazzling spearplay. The heroics are contrasted with moments of wistful feminine grace as she dreams of her old life and she brings profound emotion to the passages with her father, movingly portrayed by Huang Lei.
The production provides a welcome showcase for the power and virtuosity of the company’s men who are on magnificent form, led by the splendid Chen Jun.
Yuen Hon-wai’s ingenious sets, Karin Chiu’s well-imagined costumes and an attractive score by Matthew Ma and Angus Fu complete an enjoyable evening which makes an auspicious start to Yang’s directorship.