Hong Kong Dance Company fails to bring to life classic Chinese love story

Despite a fine performance from Tang Ya in the title role, Lady White of West Lake is slow and bleak, with a weak narrative and mundane score, it making for an unsatisfying experience

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 November, 2017, 1:18pm
UPDATED : Friday, 29 December, 2017, 4:44pm

Following 2015’s L’Amour Immortel, Hong Kong Dance Company’s artistic director, Yang Yuntao, has turned to another iconic Chinese love story for his new full-length work Lady White of West Lake. Unfortunately the result this time is less successful than the previous piece, which drew inspiration from a classic film, Tsui Hark’s A Chinese Ghost Story. Here there doesn’t seem to be much inspiration at all – despite a fine performance from Tang Ya in the title role, the piece is too thin, too slow and fails to come to life.

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The Lady of the title is Bai Suzhen, a white snake spirit who is transformed into a beautiful woman. In her human guise she encounters the young scholar Xu Xian in Hangzhou – visitors to the scenic West Lake are still shown the bridge where they are said to have met – who shelters her from the rain with his umbrella.

The couple fall in love and marry but Buddhist monk Fa Hai recognises that Bai is not in fact human and, assuming she is evil, causes her true shape as a snake to be revealed to her husband. Xu takes refuge in a monastery where Bai follows to try and get him back. When she is confronted by Fa Hai, Bai’s powers cause a flood in which many people, including Xu, are killed and, grief-stricken, she returns to her original identity.

There are numerous variations of the White Snake Lady story and this one makes some puzzling choices. Usually, Xu continues to love Bai in spite of her reptilian origins and they have a son together, so this is an unusually bleak take on the tale. It also omits one of the principal characters, Bai’s companion Xiaoqing, the Green Snake, whose feistiness might have livened things up.

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In this oversimplified form the story could be presented effectively in half an hour. Nothing is gained by dragging it out to two acts and the mundane score by Ng Cheuk-yin (good choreography needs good music) doesn’t help.

The piece starts well, with an excellent scene where Bai changes from snake to human form. Tang produces some strikingly serpentine images as she works her way out of a cocoon of white fabric; her surprise and delight as she explores her new form – arms, feet, hair – is cleverly imagined. The use of umbrellas as a recurrent motif fits with the original legend and offers a nice touch of classic Chinese dance.

However, the love story itself falls flat. There are no big duets and Li Han’s Xu, while elegantly danced, comes over as so ineffectual that it’s hard to understand why Bai should be in love with him.

Huang Lei makes more impact as Fa Hai, although the character does more posturing than dancing. Tang looks beautiful and deserves credit for making Bai moving and credible with such limited material.

The production is weak on narrative – dance should tell the story, not just decorate it – and fails to make good use of the company as a whole.

The group numbers are essentially padding whose choreography seems to have no purpose other than “let’s give the dancers something to do”.

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Other works by Yang (Storm Clouds, Chinese Hero: A Lone Exile) have suffered from similar problems but at least have pulled out all the stops in terms of design and theatrical effects. Here, while Yang Yu-teh’s costumes are attractive, Yuen Hon-wai’s set is too bare and the flood sequence, intended as a show-stopper, doesn’t make enough impact.

Lady White of West Lake , Hong Kong Dance Company , Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre.

Reviewed: November 24