The Zhenghzou Song and Dance Theatre was established in 2004 and is touring internationally with its first production, 'Wind of Shaolin'.
The Zhenghzou Song and Dance Theatre was established in 2004 and is touring internationally with its first production, Wind of Shaolin. It tells the story of Tian Yuan (Zeng Peng Fei) and his beloved Su Shui (Zhang Si Rui), who are torn apart by war. Su Shui falls into the hands of the enemy, led by the evil One-eyed Ghost (Wang Yang), while Tian Yuan is badly injured and recovers at the Shaolin Temple, eventually learning and embracing their ways. Their tragic love story is brought to life by over 60 performers through dance, acrobatics and martial arts demonstrations.
The stage at the State Theatre seems rather small for such a big production, and when you take a closer look at the photos in the programme, it appears indeed that some elements of the stage design had to be adapted to a much smaller stage than the original one. Even so, the simple yet expressive stage design makes for a beautiful and versatile background. Unfortunately, the rest of the production is nowhere near as subtle. While the dramatic lighting often adds to the impact of the story, the cheesy Western music detracts from the ambiance and starts to get annoying after a while. Traditional Chinese music would have been much more interesting and much more in tune with the atmosphere.
Even if Western audiences will miss out on most of the symbolism that would be obvious to Chinese viewers - such as the lovers dancing with pheasant feathers, a symbol of eternal love -, it seemed to me that much of this production was designed with Western audiences in mind.
Nevertheless, many traditional elements remain, such as the rather stylised emotions that seem typical for Chinese productions but can make it hard for Western audiences to connect with the characters on a deeper level. However, this general impression did not hold for many of the scenes in which Tian Yuan and Su Shui yearn for each other. Zeng Peng Fei and Zhang Si Rui make their pain and despair so immediate and tangible that even the talkers sitting one row behind me went quiet.
The drama is broken up by lighter elements such as martial arts demonstrations and acrobatics. Some parts are downright funny, especially when Ziaoshami (Xia Xiao Pei), a little boy at the Shaolin Temple, does his best to irritate the older monks or tries to cheer up Tian Yuan with his antics. Xia Xiao Pei's acrobatic and acting talent makes for some of the funniest and most impressive moments of the show.
Wang Yang as the leader of the enemy invaders doesn't do much except make evil faces, but he seems to be having fun, proving yet again that bad guys often make for the most interesting (not to mention coolest) characters, even if his loyal troops look like wannabe phantoms of the opera.
If you have seen other Shaolin or martial arts shows, such as the recent Poem of Kung Fu at Star City, you don't really need to see this one as well. It doesn't add anything new or unusual, and while it's quite well put together, it's not as spectacular as the programme blurb would have you believe. On the other hand, if you've never seen anything like it, it's definitely worth going. In that case, it also makes sense to buy a programme, even if it's grossly overpriced at 20 dollars. But it does give some interesting background information as well as a scene-by-scene synopsis of the story which makes it easier to follow what's going on, on stage.
Wind of Shaolin
Venue: State Theatre, 49 Market Street, Sydney
Dates: 19 February - 1 March, 8pm, Sat/Sun also 2pm
Tickets: Adult $89.90, Concession $55, Groups 8 or more $74.90 each, Child 16 & under $55
Bookings: State Theatre Box Office (9am to 5pm Monday to Friday and to 8pm on performance nights), www.ticketmaster.com.au