Thanks to Disney’s 1998 film, Mulan, a huge success replete with musical bangers, comedy sidekicks and a powerful female lead, there are few people who come to this story incognizant. Mulan is the girl who took her ageing father’s armour and went to war in his place, proving herself a capable and inspiring soldier in the process. She is brave, selfless, intelligent. Her story ought to be dramatic and compelling.
During the creation of Disney’s version, several key artistic supervisors were sent to China, presumably so they would hack together an Orientalised version of Mulan from a Western perspective. The result is a richly allusive and enjoyably composed film, distinctly ‘Chinese’ (though no more specific than that) – although, of course, with a fair bit of artistic licence regarding historical accuracy in everything from the events to the clothes.
In Hong Kong Dance Company’s The Legend of Mulan, artistic director Yang Yuntao seems to have taken the opposite approach. The story follows a similar track. Fa Mulan, a girl who has been brought up to work the loom like the other women of her village, is horrified when her father is called to war and steals his armour to take his place. (There’s a heavy-handed scene in which present day Mulan looks back on herself as a child, playing with and being taught by her serious but caring father; she literally spins as the memory whirl around her.) She proves herself in battle, is rewarded with a high post by royal decree, but then simply returns home to be reunited with her beloved father and the loom-spinning women of her youth. So far, so familiar – but where Disney played up their inspiration, Yang does the opposite.
Rather than drawing on traditional Chinese instruments for the score, Matthew Ma has composed a wholly forgettably and sometimes downright dull orchestral work led by piano and strings, with all the zest and vigour of a pirated midi track from 2003. Yang’s choreography mainly serves to demonstrate the gymnastic prowess of his dancers. Though channelling the brusque grace of traditional martial arts, particularly in the battle scenes, and though there are some pretty ensemble pieces with paper lanterns, the choreography as a whole lacks a distinctive style.
Pan Lingjuan’s Mulan’s arabesques are sharp but coolly calculated, her lines seemingly predicted through a points system. As daughter-Mulan, she is too tremblingly intent, though as soldier-Mulan her unflowery power is fitting and pleasing to watch, culminating in some impressive staff spinning. She is at her best as the right hand man to Sun Gongwei’s General; the two of them have a fraternal rapport that comes across very well in the acrobatic battle scenes, though there isn’t much narrative depth to it.
Karin Chiu’s costume design is sumptuous; once again eschewing obvious traditional signifiers, in this case the cuts of cheongsam or hanfu, Karin’s costumes nevertheless evoke the flowing, extravagant, feminine grace of the loom women, and the decorative armour of the soldiers. To a Western eye, the costumes are recognisably ‘Chinese’, and they are beautiful, too.
As for the piece itself – it relies heavily on impressive splits, spinning kicks, backflips and running back and forth across the stage to convey drama. Despite the training and the rehearsing that must have been behind this production, and the skill of the performers, The Legend of Mulan relies too much on horizontal movement across the stage, and an audience member would be hard put to describe any individual scene, as they tend to blur into one. Having said that, Alexandre Benois made a similar criticism of the first performance of The Nutcracker; The Legend of Mulan was certainly excitably received by the few children in the audience, and despite a limited amount to set a dance lover’s heart aflame, it could very well be a fun family production.