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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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