At a bus stop just around the corner from the Peacock Theatre, two exasperated women made stabs at understanding the performance they had just endured. Who was the guy with the white hair? Why did a Chinese lute spring open midway through the show? What was said on the scrolls? Why did the female lead spend so much time with her foot on her head?
Sadly, ladies, the answers are not to be found here.
With Chinese dance taking up a particularly low level presence on our nation’s cultural radar, Sadler’s Wells certainly took a risk in programming the dance drama Silk Road from the China Gansu Dance Troupe. We were promised a night that would embrace the diversity of Eastern culture from silk, to painting, to performance. Unfortunately, this was cultural exchange in the most formal sense – polite, embarrassed, well-meaning and ineffective. Even after studying the act by act synopsis in the programme, it’s hard to be completely sure what happened in this narcotic production that delivered a frustratingly reductive insight into Chinese arts.
To add insult to injury, the show’s international thrust was not contained within its worthy reception. With a narrative progression as blurry as a desert hallucination, Silk Road plots how the relationship between the Chinese and foreign merchants on this iconic continent-spanning route gravitated towards peace. Historically, the Silk Road is a river of products and ideas, yet even in the final scene here – which sees various countries united in a display of dance – cultural borders remain clear cut. As harem girls shake their harem pants between confused episodes of Indian dance, we witness a tapestry of pastiche rarely seen outside a Disney theme park.
If it was forgiveable for a dance drama to neglect storytelling, or for a cultural exchange to leave you feeling the 5000 miles between you and the partner country, Silk Road’s design would still take the chance to disappoint. I’ve seen more alluring depictions of Asia in am-dram productions of Aladdin, and more artistic lighting displays in Oceana. Xu Min and Jin Wei’s costumes verged on the pantomimic, and the camels that traversed the backdrop did little to undo this damage.
In Act IV, a broken lute string is an omen of bad luck. As far as the sound design was concerned, the ethereal cries that kicked off the production hardly set us off to a good start, and the only emotional impact generated by the clinical and repetitive melodies was the unintentional jet of discomfort generated by the clunky track changes. While music was referenced in the production (lutes were played and gongs were sounded), all audio remained thoroughly off stage, resulting in a bizarre form of mime.
As tranquil, inexpressive smiles coated weak storytelling and lazy design, Silk Road hides behind tradition and pastiche. Through a misguided attempt to compromise, this tale of international harmony becomes bland and non-committal, hovering on the barren border between patronising cultural spoon-feeding and clueless immersion.
Silk Road is playing at the Peacock Theatre until Sat 12 January. For more information and tickets, call Sadler’s Wells on 020 7863 8198