The city of Dunhuang in north-western Gansu province of China was a major stop on the ancient Silk Road. An oasis city, it was an important hub for trade and cultural exchange, a meeting point between the civilisations of Asia, India, Europe and the Islamic world. It is perhaps most famous for the Mogao Caves, a complex system of Buddhist temples outside the city, a wondrous cache of art and literature. The so-called Library Cave – walled off in the 11th century and rediscovered in the 20th – was found to contain everything from folks songs and government records to Buddhist, Confucian, Taoist and even Nestorian Christian texts, with manuscripts in languages from Chinese to Hebrew. Most famous of all, however, are the beautiful and elaborate murals that cover the walls of the Mogao caves, dating across a period of over a thousand years.

The Legend of DunhuangGansu Dance Troupe’s The Legend of Dunhuang. Photo: supplied

It is these murals that were the starting point for the Gansu Dance Troupe’s The Legend of Dunhuang, which makes its Australian debut in September and October. “[The Legend of Dunhaung] is a colourful, vibrant depiction of an ancient Chinese tale,” wrote reviewer Catherine Sutherland, writing for Bachtrack in London (where the production was performed under the title The Silk Road).“This colourful, glittering display presents ancient China to its modern audiences with energy and flair.”

It is the international relationships of ancient China, developed through the Silk Road, that the work seeks to put on display. “Dunhuang as a city is a sort of bridge that connects the East and West,” Gansu Dance Troupe’s Director Lu Jinlong tells Limelight through an interpreter. But The Legend of Dunhuang isn’t simply a dance-drama, he explains. “It is also kind of like a museum of the Dunhuang culture.”

The show, which features lavish sets and costumes and has toured the world as a form of cultural diplomacy since 1979 (it was updated for the Beijing Olympics in 2008), takes scenes from the Dunhuang murals as a starting point. “The beautiful poses in the paintings would be the inspiration for the choreographers,” Lu explains.

The Legend of DunhuangGansu Dance Troupe’s The Legend of Dunhuang. Photo: supplied

From each of these poses or scenes, the choreographers extrapolated a dance language. Likewise, the set and costumes were inspired by the murals, but move beyond them. “It combines a contemporary costume design style,” Lu says. “So it’s kind of a mixture of the ancient and modern world.”

Unfolding in a series of scenes, the work tells the story, set in the Tang Dynasty, of a Persian businessman who becomes lost in a dust storm in the Gobi Desert, but is rescued by the beautiful Tingniang and her father, a mural painter. “Our production tells a story of friendship, of humanity and harmony,” Lu says.

Gansu Dance Troupe's The Legend of Dunhuang. Photo: suppliedGansu Dance Troupe’s The Legend of Dunhuang. Photo: supplied

Like the rest of the production, the score combines music inspired by the traditional culture of Dunhuang with more contemporary elements. “The composers and the creators, they did a lot of research about Chinese culture – about Dunhuang culture – and then they came to compose the new music for the production,” Lu says.

In the sixth scene, for instance, the music derives from Chinese opera, but overall the score is a combination of Chinese traditional music and music from the Western regions of China, influenced also by the music of India and Pakistan. “The different cultures come together in Dunhuang and we create something from the diverse cultures,” Lu says.

Gansu Dance Troupe's The Legend of Dunhuang. Photo: suppliedGansu Dance Troupe’s The Legend of Dunhuang. Photo: supplied

The 1979 version of the show used predominantly Chinese instruments, with the inclusion of just a few Western instruments. “In 2008 it’s reversed,” says Lu. “Most of the instruments are from the Western orchestra and we add some of the Chinese national instruments into that orchestra.” He notes that due to the limitations of touring, the production won’t be using a live band in the Australian performances, however.

Lu hopes that through this production, which tells a story of friendship, humanity and harmony, audiences will get a glimpse of the beauty of Dunhuang and the Mogao Caves. But the production itself now has its own historical and cultural weight. “After about 40 years of overseas touring of this production, it has become a milestone in Chinese dance history,” Lu says. “It’s a milestone of the Chinese dance-dramas.”

The Legend of Dunhuang plays at The Star on the Gold Coast, September 28 – 29, Civic Theatre, Newcastle, October 2 – 3, Theatre ICC, Darling Harbour, Sydney, October 5 – 6