Darling Harbour Theatre, ICC Sydney
October 5, 2018

The Mogao Caves outside Dunhuang in China’s Gansu province – a system of human-made caves housing one of the world’s most important repositories of Buddhist art and literature, including stunning painted murals – have inspired several Chinese works coming to Australia for the first time this year. Tonight the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra gives the Australian premiere of Tan Dun’s Buddha Passion, conducted by the composer, as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival. Chinese dance-drama The Legend of Dunhuang is making its Australian debut tour, performed in Sydney last night by the Gansu Dance Troupe after shows on the Gold Coast and in Newcastle.

Legend of DunhuangThe Legend of Dunhuang. Photo supplied

The colourful dance piece a story of friendship and art, set during the Tang dynasty – has become a classic of the Chinese dance repertory, touring for almost 40 years since its creation in 1979, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Its moral of friendship between nations has made it an apt piece of cultural diplomacy, seen in more than 40 countries. Dunhuang itself was an important stop on the ancient Silk Road, where a variety cultures and religions mingled.

The Legend of Dunhuang tells the story of mural painter Shenbi Zhang and his daughter Yingniang, who save a wealthy Persian merchant, Yunus, from dying in the desert. Yunus later repays the debt buying Yingniang’s freedom from a traveling dance troupe after she’s captured by bandits. The story unfolds in a series of scenes (introduced in an English voice-over) built around stunning stage pictures, inspired by the cave murals, of lavish costumes, colour and movement, from the glittering of gold Buddha statues – the dancers’ fingers adorned in gold and splayed in anemone-like structures – in the Prologue to the vibrant market scene where Yingniang’s dance troupe performs.

Visually there are some wonderful moments. Danced by Kang Qi, Yingnian’s solo with a long, colourful scarf that weaves ornate filigree around her body during a dream-sequence is a particular highlight, as is her dance with pipa, the instrument spinning around her body as we hear its music in the score. A joyous, athletic dance by Wang Zihan as Shenbi Zhang as he finds the inspiration he needs to finish his mural, inspired by his daughter’s dance, is quite moving. The dancer who leads the bandits is particularly stunning, his whirling choreography both sinister and sinuous – his bows were also brilliant, the wind of his whirling moves lifting up the flowers carpeting the stage from the final scene (in fact, some of the most virtuosic dancing happened in the bows). The ensemble work, too, is generally very effective, the troupe bringing to life evocative scenes from dust-storm to marketplace, and in brightly jingling numbers, the dancers’ costumes adorned with bells.

The surging, uplifting score is largely performed on Western instruments, with traditional Chinese instruments adding their distinctive timbres at key moments, such as the pipa dance.

Legend of DunhuangKang Qi and Wang Zihan in The Legend of Dunhuang. Photo supplied

The Legend of Dunhuang is interesting as a historical piece, but while this production was refreshed in 2008 it now feels quite dated, particularly the animated backdrops and simple sets. Transitions between scenes are often clunky, and on Friday night several lighting cues were missed. The touring production is fairly stripped back, the dancers performing to prerecorded music pumped through the speakers, which flattens the experience somewhat – it would be richer with live instruments.

Ultimately it’s the visuals that are the draw card, the finale – which sees delegates from the countries along the Silk Road gather in celebration, flower petals raining down – caps off a slideshow of beautiful, mural-like scenes.

The Legend of Dunhuang is at Darling Harbour Theatre, ICC Sydney, until October 6