Pros: Beautiful costumes, graceful dancing, impressive gymnastics. Visually stunning.
Cons: The music was far too quiet and totally underwhelming by comparison.
I don’t quite know how to put it… but Silk Road was kind of a big deal… And yes, I just opened a review on a show by a company with such a sterling international reputation as Gansu Dance Troupe with a quote from Anchorman. Having seen a show at the 1000-seat Peacock Theatre before, I assumed this production would be slightly bigger than most I review but arriving at the press night reception (there really is no better word) I realised I had, in the words of George Bush Jr., “mis-underestimated” things. Everyone was dolled up to the nines, there was wine and photographers everywhere, and the programme was actually a beautiful work of art – all very showbiz. Anyone who is anyone in the Chinese cultural elite in the Capital was there. I felt very inadequate, and very under-dressed.
Having done some provisional research in the programme, I knew slightly more than nothing about the Tang Dynasty, and dance. Bring on the show. The story followed the misadventures of Painter Shenbi Zhang (An Ning) and his daughter Li Li (Ying Niang) but the exact plot was a little hard to follow for an “unlesson’d girl, unschool’d, unpracticed” like myself (there, I quoted Shakespeare, does that make up for earlier?).
But speaking for my own part, narrative is only half the experience (if that) in a dance piece like Silk Road. Throughout the show I was entertained, not once did my mind wander or – WOULD YOU SHUT UP?! Sorry about that, but the people behind me were talking during the whole show and they had to be told.
Now, there’s no excuse for poor behaviour at the theatre but there is an explanation: the music of Silk Road was at best too quiet, at worst village hall-esque. A production that has travelled over from China is not expected to have a full orchestra, but it’s a dance piece, so they should sound like they have one booming from the pit, rather than the tinny stuff we heard trickling from the speakers.
Another niggle I had with the show was the long scene changes. The talkative audience was only afforded more opportunity to chatter away as we waited for the curtain to rise between scenes. I would have been in favour of cutting a few of the set pieces in favour of shortening the changes.
But these two niggles were just that, niggles. They did not spoil what was an interesting and entertaining evening – though the gobby man in row O of the stalls gave it a good old college try. There was no annoying prattle that could detract from the visually flamboyant scenes on stage – none glitzier than the epilogue in which a group of women danced elegantly in beaded gowns that rustled whenever they moved.
There were also some truly poignant moments; I may have not have understood every single story point but I couldn’t help but be affected when, after father and daughter fought so hard to find a way back to each other, the father died in his daughter’s arms. Though the pathos of the moment was somewhat undercut when two ‘comedy camels’ – manned by dancers – crossed the stage behind the dying man.
This all being said, the evening was different to any evening I’ve experienced recently at the theatre. I was glad to come into contact with a culture and art form I don’t often see, and though I didn’t understand all of it, I was truly immersed in the experience.
Company: Gansu Dance Troupe
Directors: Shen Chen, Xu Chenghua
Box Office: 0844 871 7627
Booking Link: http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/silk-road/peacock-theatre/
Booking until: 12th January 2014