There is almost no way in which Silk Road met its description as “a touching story of friendship and peace between Chinese people and foreign merchants during the Tang Dynasty (618-907).” It is a dance spectacular designed to promote a modern Chinese image of its restive Western provinces – but it seems to have no grounding whatsoever in actual history (as the area was controlled by Tibetans for part of this time) much less the basics of modern choreography.
The story is constructed around a single image from the Mogao Grotto Buddhist Cave paintings – that of an Apsara (female sky deity) playing a pipa (Chinese guitar) on her back. Silk Road posits that this painting was inspired by the daughter of the cave painters, but constructs an elaborate tale of how she (Yingniang – alternately played by Li Li and Chen Chen) and her father (Shenbi Zhang – An Ning) saved the life of a Persian Trader (Yunus – Suo JingXing), which led to him marrying Yingniang. When she returns from Persia with a tribute gift to China, she is waylaid by the bandit Dou Hu (Song Yulong), who steals the gift so it can be presented by a corrupt official (Wang Jianfei) as his own. At the great presentation of gifts (cue dance routine), Yingniang reveals that she was the one who brought the pipa, and the Military Governor has Dou Hu and the official executed.
This piece achieves moments of beauty during a few key scenes, both of which bring to life the Dunhaung/Mogao Grotto paintings. At the beginning, a crowd of about twenty female dancers recreate the hand gestures of the thousand-armed Buddha. As done in a shimmering golden light, with their metal-tipped fingernails glittering in the light, it was beautiful – though the effect was ruined by sitting in the far right of the house. Another lovely scene has Yingniang doing a ribbon dance, gloriously illustrating the fabric movements captured statically by the ancient painters.
Alas, so much of this was undone by the overall choreography, which was juvenile to the point of absurdity. There was a great emphasis on prettiness and group movement, but there was almost nothing else to admire besides occasional gymnastics and a few Beijing Opera style gestures – it was as if the 20th century had never happened. Making it even more teeth-grinding was the over the top miming, which made the villains come off like Snidely Whiplash with Yingniang as Trixie Trueblood. Moderation in acting seemed a foreign concept, with Shenbi Zhang’s death scene so elongated it turned into parody.
Granted, this show is meant to be understood with no words at all, but if they were really simplifying it for that reason, wouldn’t it have been better if the visible printed text (seen on two occasions) had not been in Chinese? And the final dance sequence in the palace was such a comic departure from history I actually got angry at the pure laziness and historical ignorance we were supposed to swallow. Korean, Thai, Japanese and Persian diplomats coming to kowtow to the Tang military official in Dunhuang – it was such an obvious political statement I burst out laughing. (There has been significant anti-Chinese unrest in the Muslim west, but this wasn’t a reality the choreographers dare acknowledge – better to pretend it has always been Han Chinese.)
I was willing to accept having a heroine who dressed in hot pink flares, but to have a single Japanese woman – in 19th century dress – at the Chinese court – in Tang dynasty (appx 700AD) Dunhaung – beggared the imagination. Yes, there was a giant wall of glitter falling from the sky at the end, but it couldn’t take the taste of sloppy dramaturgy, careless costuming, and panto camels away from the show. Most of the audience clearly wasn’t bothered, as they continued to seat themselves even twenty minutes after the start of the show and talked and took photos throughout, but I found this show two painful hours. The only thing missing at the end? A group of Fa Lun Gung supporters handing out flyers outside of the event, but I could only imagine that in the face of official Chinese historical suppression (and revision), they were keeping themselves safe from the goons.
(This review is for a performance that took place on January 11th, 2014. It closed in London on January 12th.)