The Ballad of Mulan is an ancient Chinese poem describing the tale of a warrior woman – which received the Disney treatment in 1998. It’s a slender story: when the army starts conscripting men for battle, Mulan decides to save her old and ailing father by taking his place. Disguised as a man, she achieves great victories, but at the end of the fighting, instead of accepting honours, she asks only for a horse to speed her home.
The director and choreographer Yang Yuntao’s interpretation of this famous legend for Hong Kong Dance Company is faithful to the text – but as a result, the source material feels as though it has been stretched pretty thin over a two-hour show. There is a lot of milling about from the ensemble to little effect, and, as the battles get underway, an awful lot of heroic poses being struck and held in place of any real sense of action.
It’s a shame because the cast is obviously very talented. Although Yang’s choreography is flabby here, it shows the dancers can embrace a mix of contemporary and classical skills, and there are some excellent examples of Chinese opera-style acrobatics (although having the cast roll repeatedly down a ramp is a bit of low point). Pan Lingjuan is a graceful yet forceful Mulan, who can switch from affecting tenderness in her duets with Huang Lei’s father figure to fierce martial artist as she shows off her stick-work. The women in the ensemble all work particularly hard, morphing from warriors to Chinese lantern-carrying maidens whose swift steps make it seem they are gliding on ice.
For western audience tastes, there is quite a heavy dose of melodrama in this Mulan – Matthew Ma’s overblown score of soaring strings ramps this up further. And the female empowerment message is decidedly mixed: Mulan, in a moment away from battle, reminisces happily about being back at her loom. At the end, returning to find her father is dead and she is left alone, this Mulan seems to have been given the suicide ending – she slips away from a spotlit cascade of petals (Hua Mulan means magnolia flower) and into the shadows. This is not explained in the programme note, though, and a final voiceover in Cantonese is not translated for us – so it’s hard to be sure.