Pros: Authenticity, incredible acting, emotion, and music.
Cons: Live singing would have really topped it off.
While the North battled against the icy-cold component of Britain’s crazy climate, visitors to Islington, the home of the fantastic Sadler’s Wells, had typically British winter conditions to contend with. These visitors were largely Chinese, creating an ambiance of something bigger than just a dance show, as cameras clicked, champagne flowed and guests gathered. In every step, from the programme (yes, really. It’s gorgeous) to the reception, to the show itself, this was a masterclass in production: a moving, deep love letter from modern China to its ancestors.
Legend of the Sun tells the story of the Zhuang people’s quest to bring the power of the sun to their lightless village. Ma (Li Ying), a pregnant woman, journeys to the sun until she can go no further and is replaced by her son, Le (Cui Zhenbo) and his lover Sister Teng (Li Jialin). There is occasional singing, but the show is otherwise wordless. This hands the expression of meaning to the dancers through their movement and the director through his choreography. Akin to a parent’s angry stare or a partner’s loving touch, meaning is consistently clear. This is best evidenced in the scene in which Le witnesses his mother’s death, which is genuinely the most realistic, heart-wrenching death scene I have ever seen. The absence of dialogue leaves space for a raw, physical energy that transcends traditional portrayals of grief and loss.
The piece is accompanied by a fantastic soundtrack, at times traditionally oriental and at others pure opera. This adds a unique and authentic backdrop to the emotion that the dancers so naturally convey. Like the music, singing is also pre-recorded which unfortunately detracts from the show’s verisimilitude. However it may be that although technically uncomplicated, actor/singers would not have been able to project such emotion through their movement and dancers were thus chosen at the expense of live vocals.
The mise en scène is sparse but perfectly evokes the piece’s timeless, eternal nature while maintaining focus on the actors above all else. The colour and props are principally provided by the cast, from a human lily pad to four cast members generating a swirling green sea. This is mostly of the highest order, barring the depiction of the moon, which is inferior and overt against the show’s otherwise excellent use of metaphor and symbolism.
Cui Zhenbo as Le is magnificent, stealing the show with his athleticism and range of emotion. When he is off stage, there are occasional large numbers, in which the cast is in visually scintillating form, but these are all too infrequent. Sometimes the ensemble is a little too twee and smiley, but this only underlines the performance’s authenticity and its unapologetic attitude about its own style and heritage in front of a Westernised audience. Besides, this is more than just a dance performance; there are elements of film, poetry, art and musical theatre, but Legend of the Sun never forgets that it is a dance before anything else.
This is a true epic, with a lightness and delicacy that most epics shy away from. It evokes The Lion King, The Lord of the Rings and Oldboy (strangely) but is ultimately a work of art which we rarely see on these shores: a product made in China, totally unconcerned with the West, but exactly what we need more of.
Director: Ding Wei
Producer: Nanning Arts Theatre, China
Composer: Liu Gangbao, Liu Kexin
Booking Until: Production run has ended