Silk Road

Gansu Dance, Drama & Opera Ensemble
Peacock Theatre

Gansu Dance, Drama & Opera Ensemble
Gansu Dance, Drama & Opera Ensemble
Gansu Dance, Drama & Opera Ensemble
Gansu Dance, Drama & Opera Ensemble
Gansu Dance, Drama & Opera Ensemble
Gansu Dance, Drama & Opera Ensemble
Gansu Dance, Drama & Opera Ensemble

Tableaux to dazzle the eye, voluptuous apsaras (female spirits) of Buddhist mythology, highwaymen, kidnapping, treachery, and a troupe of forty-seven with acrobatic, martial, and dancing skills, the Silk Road has a six-chapter tale to tell in a spectacular setting.

Gateway to the West; gateway to the East—depends which way you’re facing—for centuries the famous Silk Road was a perilous but lucrative commercial route for traders, and for bandits who frequently waylaid the camel trains en route. Bactrian camels there are, too, gliding like swans across the back.

A father and his daughter give water to a rich Persian merchant crossing the desert. He repays this kindly deed in good time, rescuing the daughter from the clutches of evil men.

A painter of Buddhist scenes in the monastic caves of Dunhaung (a frontier town), the grieving father makes her the centrepiece of his work. Playing a pipa—a Chinese lute—she is commemorated as an apsara.

If any of you have been to the V and A museum in London for the Chinese exhibition (one week left), you’ll recognise the backcloth paintings from the Tang dynasty.

After much toing and froing—the kidnapped and sold into dancing concubinage girl is found and whisked off to safety in Persia, where she is happy, but returns to China to seek her father, only to see him shot down with an arrow in his back on the orders of the corrupt mayor.

Justice is finally served at the ‘Friendly Alliance’ of twenty-seven nations in front of the emperor-like Governor, his wife, and foreign guests. The villains are put to death.

Narrative and pageant inspired by the famous cave frescoes in Dunhaung (also known as the Mogao Caves—now a World Heritage Site), Gansu Dance, Drama and Opera Ensemble’s Silk Road, first performed in 1979, adapted into a film in 1982, ‘a modern version of a traditional Chinese dance-drama’, honours the section of route passing through its own North Western territory.

Indeed ‘the main role of the Ensemble is to research, create and perform Dunhuang music and dance, which bloomed along the Silk Road during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907)’.

Making its first visit to London ‘following 34 years of performances across the world in 30 countries and 400 cities to audiences of more than four million’, the Ensemble also appeared at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

London’s Chinese community was out in force to welcome and applaud its own cultural ambassador in ‘a story of peace and friendship between Chinese merchants and foreign traders’. In a charm offensive…

The perfunctory tale serves as a frame for dancing of various oriental styles, lots of gymnastic tumbling and twisting, fluid t’ai chi control and incredible balance, fabulous costumes of every hue and pattern, and glitter raining down from the heavens.

Song Yulong stands out as the bandit with his lithe panther leaps and swagger, and Chen Chen is a very pliable young lady—leg reaching past her ear in six o’clock extension, she is at once supple, elegant and demure.

The corps of dancing girls, gold finger extensions creating spiky lotus blossom shapes, provides an ever-changing kinetic landscape. The Peacock stage felt too small to contain them.

The little girl in me loved the first half, but the shorter second began to drag towards the end—obviously my inner ten-year-old had reached her limit.

Very glad to have seen the Ensemble (founded in 1961 by the Culture Department of China’s Gansu province)—it reminded me of the former Soviet Union’s regional Palaces of Culture each proudly demonstrating the rich heritage of its republic—I’d have loved to have rubbed shoulders within the red-roped precinct of the private Chinese Embassy party if only to glean what the stage scroll missives meant. 

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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