Imagine watching the silent film Metropolis, except with live dancers and a digital screen animating epic cities and buildings. That is what the production Tales of 12 Chinese Zodiac felt like, except without the intricacy of plot and continuous character development that drove Metropolis forward – or, in fact, any standard narrative.

Tales of 12 Chinese Zodiac. Photographs courtesy of Ausfeng

Tales of 12 Chinese Zodiac is performed by China Oriental Performing Arts Group, produced by China Arts and Entertainment Group, and presented here by Ausfeng. As the title suggests, the production was a culmination of stories that sought to express and ‘promote Chinese traditional culture and characteristics’. The 12 zodiacs were integrated with popular traditional musical elements that represented the four seasons, which made up the ‘interludes’. The zodiacs themselves were chosen less for the purpose of retelling their origins in a modern-meets-traditional way (which was a sentiment that seemed to resonate with most of the audience), but more for the sake of purely presenting a universal aspect that strongly represents Chinese culture. Hence, there was a lack of coherency in the narrative. Having said that, the artistry displayed in all aspects of performance – dance and music, and the integrity presented within each individual unit – was of such skill and character that the production was very much a major entertainment success.

The traditional and cultural Chinese atmosphere began with the authenticity of the stage layout, from the large bell gong on the left strapped to its wooden pillar, and the large Paigu drums on the right, draped with ivy, to the screen projection of the 12 zodiacs cycle. Unsettled audience members spoke in great volumes that continued well into the prelude of the production, as a single male dancer dressed in a simple red qipao walked on stage towards the gong, in a still brightly lit theatre with latecomers trailing in one after the other. The talking only stopped after the gong strikes completely ceased, the lights began to dim and text appear to introduce the first act – The Diligent Oxens, leaving the group directly behind me, wondering about the order of the zodiacs.

The dancing throughout was impeccable. And its effect was only enhanced with the intricately crafted and designed outfits, representing the animal of the act. For the Oxens, the brown and grey crinkled lines, hunched bodies and harmonised movement within the whole ‘herd’, were all synced immaculately with the ever-increasing majesty of the music. It was followed by the assault of the Rapid Tigers. Their fast, yet subtle, prowling movements were accompanied by live percussive music and ended with a beautiful projection of a roaring golden tiger. Its light cast shadows on the crouched figures of the dancers, creating the illusion of an ethereal radiance. Both set up palpitations of excitement for the audience, before flipping with tranquillity and grace into the first interlude – Spring followed by The Wise Goat.

All the interludes were live musical acts that represented characteristic features of their season. Spring saw pleasant harvest, Summer was fiery with thunder and rain, Autumn depicted harvest and grasshoppers, and Winter the cold sea that marks the beginning of a new year. While beautiful, and logistically speaking the easiest way to stage manage the scene changes, the seemingly arbitrary nature of these interludes felt less genuinely related to the holistic picture.

The Playful Rats, Frolicking Dogs and Prosperous Pigs were all cleverly programmed at pivotal sections to break the seriousness. Particularly well-scripted were the Rats and Dogs, in which both had a very clear and clean storyline that could be easily followed – and that aspect of clarity was reflected in the audience’s reaction towards both acts. The music, particularly for the Frolicking Dogs, underwent clever repetition to highlight the changing of ages, its motivic cell the same each time, only rhythmically and orchestrally altered to suit the change.

If there was anything that felt underplayed in and amongst the drama, it was the Rooster’s reincarnation. A single female dancer took to the stage after the Flying Horses, reincarnating into a Phoenix on a tabletop. Her body movements encompassed incredible strength and delicacy, all accented by her royal blue body suit, and the sheer concentration and ability to be able to so cleanly isolate the tips of her toes and fingers in a way that was clearly noticeable to the audience from afar, was absolutely astounding. Her representation was exquisite, it was flawless, it was utterly memorable, and its only shame was its brevity. For reasons unknown, it was the only act where the music flowed into the next work, the Dragons, without pause. As a result, the poor Rooster (Phoenix reincarnated) disappeared backstage without applause as the resonating dragons launched straight into their act and into the percussion-filled finale.

It was an exhilarating night that ended with faces that were both beaming and slightly bemused. There were phones out before the end, their white screens blazing in the darkness, capturing scenes of the moment but ruining the moment itself, which was a shame as it was a production with much to love and acknowledge.

Tales of 12 Chinese Zodiac plays at the Palais Theatre, Melbourne on Monday November 25