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Flash Review 2, 3-6: What's Black, White, and Vulgar all Over?
"Wild Zebra" Tramples Taste

By Chloe Smethurst
Copyright 2003 Chloe Smethurst

MELBOURNE -- Unfortunately for the unsuspecting public of Melbourne, the first major touring dance spectacle of 2003 has turned out to be nothing more than an over-hyped piece of blatant exhibitionism.

The Chinese production, "Wild Zebra," which opened at the State Theatre February 27, combines a strange mixture of acrobatics, gymnastics, modern dance and soft-shoe ballet. I say strange, because of the elements employed from the above disciplines, none are done well or tastefully. This production is one of the worst displays of vulgarity I have ever seen at the State Theatre, or indeed anywhere.

To begin with, the story-line of the piece is beyond credibility, even allowing for the fact that the inspiration for the production came to choreographer/director Zhang Jigang in a dream. His vision of a fantasy jungle where the animals live in harmony under the rule of a Queen Bear would be perfectly suitable for a children's story, but on closer inspection the plot development is as fraught with blunders as is the choreography.

The story revolves around Queen Bear's quest to collect 100 zebra skins to make a coat that will allow her to live and rule for many years (a la Cruella de Ville of "101 Dalmations"). Queen Bear is holding Wild Zebra captive so that she may use his hide to complete the coat. One of the queen's closest 'friends' is the Princess Zebra, who falls in love with Wild Zebra and eventually frees him. What confused me was how the princess could love a queen who was prepared to kill one hundred of her kindred.... did she not feel that her own hide was in danger? After freeing Wild Zebra, the princess runs away with him to the 'Plains of Forever,' where all the other wild zebras live. They abide happily there, until news comes to them that Queen Bear is ill, and needs to complete her coat of zebra skins to live. The other animals, including a fox, leopards, antelopes, swans and monkeys come hunting for Wild Zebra. Princess Zebra tries to warn him, but is shot in the leg by an arrow, and decides that by sacrificing herself, she will bring peace and happiness to the animal kingdom. So Princess Zebra kills herself, and the Queen is saved. For a beloved queen of the animals, Queen Bear seemed to delight in killing off large portions of her realm!

Despite the poor libretto, the production could have been saved by inventive and skillful choreography. Unfortunately, this wasn't to be. There was huge scope for the different animal groups to be bestowed with individual characteristics suited to their natural movements, but instead we were presented with medium level acrobatics, displays of flexibility and tired cliches. "Wild Zebra" was billed as a dance spectacular, but at times I wondered if I was at a cheer-leading competition, the choreography was so tacky. For instance, when the couple first arrive at the Plains of Forever they are greeted by some 45 zebras on stage, performing a synchronized floor routine of what could only be described as aerobics exercises. Some of the worst displays of choreography were in the pas de deux between Wild Zebra and the Princess. To express his love for her, Wild Zebra held a contorted handstand for an extended moment, as though by showing her how strong and flexible he was he was also demonstrating deep emotion. Similarly, in the duets, the main aim of the choreography seemed to be to show off the princess's contortionist skills, rather than to express any kind of love between the couple. One lift which was used repeatedly had Princess Zebra being supported horizontally in the air with her legs held open to the front in second splits while her partner proudly displayed how wide she could open her legs to the audience. This kind of crude exhibition further marred the evening's performance.

The other facets of the performance were slightly less vulgar, but generally of a similar standard. The lighting was particularly disappointing, especially in the scene where, inexplicably, yellow spiral-patterned lights were suddenly beamed onto the stage floor as Princess Zebra suffered her death throes. The costumes were as to be expected, balletified versions of animal pelts. There were swans in tutus, monkeys in gold epaulettes and boots, and leopards in lycra, which managed to portray which animal group the performers belonged to without really enhancing the production's quality in any way. The recorded score, composed by Zhang Qianyi, gave the impression of being pieced together from many existing ballet scores. There was nothing novel or even particularly interesting in the music and again, it did nothing to raise the bar in this below-average production.

The only redeeming feature of the show were the extraordinary physical skills displayed by some of the performers. Their flexibility went beyond anything that could be expected of typical ballet performers in Australia, and it seemed to be a standard requirement for the dancers. This criterion didn't appear to apply to their drama skills though, which were either completely over-exaggerated, as in the case of Wild Zebra and the Fox, or as for the majority of the cast, non-existent.

Although I did feel that this performance was of a particularly low standard, there were two elements I perceived that should be mentioned. The first is that this production comes to us from Shanghai, where customs and values are very different. Perhaps when reading the piece from our point of view some of the cultural significance is lost, and thus the performance loses intent. The other thing to mention is that if one didn't take into account the lack of refinement, the show could be entertaining, especially for children. There are a multitude of 'spectacular' gymnastic moves executed throughout the piece, and if a spectacle is what you're looking for, "Wild Zebra: may be it. To me, the whole experience was thoroughly disappointing, especially as we so rarely see work here coming directly from China.


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