Legend of the Sun

Director by Wei Ding, choreographer Shuangbai Feng, music Gangbao Liu, lyrics Shuaiyuan Mei
Guanxi Nanning Arts Theatre, China
Sadler's Wells

Legend of the Sun Credit: Courtesy of Guanxi Nanning Arts Theatre
Legend of the Sun Credit: Courtesy of Guanxi Nanning Arts Theatre
Legend of the Sun Credit: Courtesy of Guanxi Nanning Arts Theatre
Legend of the Sun Credit: Courtesy of Guanxi Nanning Arts Theatre

2015 being the year of UK-China cultural exchange, in the spirit of diplomacy Sadler’s Wells is playing host to the Guanxi Nanning Arts Theatre from South China, who bring Legend of the Sun, a traditional folk tale of the Zhuang people’s ‘ceaseless pursuit of happiness and their bravery against hardship.’

Living in a place of darkness, they are in need of the sun. Many volunteer to go in search of it, but the community chose a persuasive pregnant mother to be their saviour. If the journey is long—and believe me it is—the child can take over.

On and on they go over mountains, through dales, rivers, waterfalls, sheltering in caves. The mother dies, the son continues till he’s a grown man. He finds his love along the way and all ends happily in exuberant village dance.

A front cloth of blazing red ochre featuring primitive cave art lifts my expectations of a Rite of Spring experience. Costumes of equal dazzle to those of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes raise them even more. But there the comparison ends.

Five acts and a prelude start with huge promise, but as the journey goes on and on, repeated Songs of Longing for Your Return, of Journey, of Love, of Wine, one’s energy does sag. The performers on stage have enough for all, but somehow it does not cross-infect.

Bodies in vibrant colours, in an astonishing range of national costumes, bodies forming the terrain, and two specially selected UK performers amongst the throng, who blend remarkably well, cannot dispel a sense of amateur dramatics, reminding my companion of her college productions.

Yi Ju’s set design for the show is apparently inspired "by the unique landscape of the Guangxi province, one of China’s most beautiful regions. Located in southern China, Guangxi is the size of Great Britain, and is home to 90% of China’s Zhuang population, approximately 14 million people".

This delightful tale from provincial China has been awarded several national arts honours, "including the Golden Lotus Award, the Outstanding Production Award at the 7th China Theatre Festival, and was selected as one of the 2004-2005 ‘Ten Best Productions’ by the National Project for the Distillation of Stage Art".

But, with the best will in the world, its telling does not set me aflame, and I am a sucker for international fairy tales.

Perhaps some editing to avoid repetition—we do get the idea that the journey goes on for decades—and tidier dancing from the ensemble would set it on the right road.

Ninety minutes with interval seemed twice as long—there were tactless walkouts even from amongst invited guests. And the auditorium was far from full. Maybe another venue would have pulled in larger crowds for this musical theatre production. Last year Gansu Dance, Drama & Opera Ensemble’s Silk Road had a better reception at the Peacock Theatre.

Choreographer Feng Shuangbai said, “in the process of creating the performance, we encountered many challenges in uniting the dance and the original story. What should the focus of our show be?

“Should it be the Zhuang people’s spirit to overcome their predicament, or the sacrifice of a mother? After many discussions, we decided that the key to the story is how the most difficult times encourage people to challenge themselves, beyond their own self interest.”

The show is lovely to look at—the stars of the evening undoubtedly are Qing Mai’s captivating costumes—and I do overcome self interest by remaining in my seat to the very end.

Reviewer: Vera Liber