LEGEND OF THE SUN – Sadler’s Wells, London.
Legend of the Sun is brought to Sadler’s Wells by Imagine China, an initiative of the China Arts and Entertainment Group with the purpose of exposing Chinese culture to an international audience. The forty-strong company bring this ancient Chinese folk tale to life in a whirlwind of passion and colour.
The story is of the Zhuang people and their quest to bring sunlight to their homeland. The elders chose from many volunteers a pregnant woman named Ma (meaning “Mother”, played at this performance by Li Ying) to embark on the adventure, with the promise that if she cannot complete the task in her lifetime then her unborn baby will continue her quest. Through the wilderness she travels, battling nature and her own inner struggles.
The physical prowess of the ensemble is displayed in impressive fashion. With nature serving to help and guide her through, valleys and hills and rivers are represented in the collective bodies of the other dancers, moving as one to lift her (sometimes literally) closer to her goal. In the wilderness she gives birth to a son named Le (literally meaning “Son”, played by Ciu Zhenbo) and teaches him all he must know to complete the journey. As Le thrives and grows into a strong young man, Ma grows old and with her soul finally at rest, the time has come for him to go it alone.
One day Le falls from a cliff and is rescued by Sister Teng (danced with charm by Li Jialin) and he is captivated by her from the moment they meet. Here the production takes a joyous and playful turn, filled with vibrant colour and youthful energy. The piece is at its strongest when we watch the couple tease each other and fall in love. Strong lifts and powerful steps are disguised by the gentleness and ease with which they interact, knowing every detail of each others’ movement. It is wonderful to watch. Overwhelmed by his new-found love, Le forgets his mission but at once is reminded and painfully parts from Sister Teng to continue his journey without her. She chases after him through a violent storm and together their love gives them the power to complete the mission and find the rising sun.
There is an element of the circus about Legend of the Sun, from acrobatic movement to the bold set pieces and brightly coloured costumes that enhance rather than overwhelm the production. Staged on two levels they make great use of the large stage, reflecting the grandiose nature of both the story and the cultural significance of bringing the work to a foreign audience. The choreography itself appears to encapsulate the strength and grace of Chinese dance tradition, it is inventive but stays true to itself.
The dancing, beautiful and powerful though it is, is secondary to the story conveyed. The sweeping orchestral score by Liu Gangbao and Liu Kexin is as grand as any classical European ballet, heightening the turmoil and tenderness of the story. Affectionate songs, lyrics by Mei Shuaiyuan (the translated lyrics are printed in the beautifully produced programme) punctuate the action. Director Ding Wei does a great job of treating both the drama and lightness with equal care and attention.
Serving as a metaphor for the pursuit of happiness, the story is accessible and timeless and shows that the path to peace and joy often turns out differently from the one you imagine when you set out. A lot of care has seemingly been lavished on this production and it shows in every detail, from the design to the performances. If you are a fan of classical ballet then this is for you. It has the same passion and storytelling, and while there is not a Pointe shoe in sight, the same grace, strength and physical prowess is on display.
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By Catherine Duffy
30th – 31st January 2015
Sadler’s Wells Theatre, EC1R 4TN.