Next month, the Hong Kong Dance Company stages the UK premiere of its signature dance-drama The Legend of Mulan at London’s Royal Festival Hall. David Mead talks with artistic director and choreographer Yang Yuntao.
Everyone in China knows the story of Mulan (木蘭), the legendary heroine first presented in a 5th-century Chinese poem, The Ballad of Mulan (木蘭辭), who, having practiced martial arts, archery and swordsmanship along with the more usual weaving and embroidery, disguised herself as a man to join the army in place of her aged father. She fought for a decade, gaining great respect, but then gave up a position at court to retire to her hometown. Mulan’s tale is one of China’s most treasured and has been the subject of several stage and screen adaptations, including a 1998 Disney film.
Like many legendary stories, that of Mulan has its roots in a real figure whose family name was Hua, born in a small rural village in northern China. While the precise dates of her life are disputed, and her story has undoubtedly been revised over the centuries, it continues to attract artists because of the universal values embedded in it.
Chatting in his office on the eighth floor of the Sheung Wan Civic Centre in Hong Kong, with music from the spacious studio opposite in the background drifting in on the air, choreographer and Hong Kong Dance Company (HKDC, 香港舞蹈團) artistic director Yang Yuntao (楊雲濤) describes the famous poetry as plain but lyrical. “It naturally reminds one of the language and expression of dance.”
“Mulan is a traditional folklore story,” Yang explains. “The children all know about it because they study it in schools. It’s easy for audiences to understand. He describes his first 2008 interpretation of the story as “very traditional, with a very direct narrative,” but then adds, “now it has been changed a lot.”
His reworked The Legend of Mulan (花木蘭) has made the piece more conceptual than realistic, Yang says, although emphasising that the story is still easy to follow. He explains that he injected his own interpretation of the story into both the storyline and the choreography. “It’s about personal values. In Oriental tradition it’s always like that. Personal views are always the most important. The original story celebrates some traditional Chinese values, for example courage and loyalty, but I have now injected some very contemporary values into the story because we are living in a very contemporary world. And I believe that why the story has been widely accepted in the Western world is because people can appreciate all those values.”
“The whole atmosphere is very Oriental,” he adds, advising everyone to look out for the costumes by Karin Chiu (趙瑞珍). “They are beautiful.” The music by music director Matthew Ma (馬永齡) too, he adds, which he describes as variations on traditional tunes adapted for Western instruments.
When asked about his particular choreographic style, Yang laughs and pauses. “Actually, I haven’t rationally thought about it. I just create what I think is good and beautiful. Of course, Hong Kong is a fusion of West and East, so my mix is very much Hong Kong.” He adds that he dislikes being labelled, just as he doesn’t see the need to label dance as ballet, Chinese, contemporary or whatever. “I don’t want it to be rigid and say what it can or cannot be. Art is about being original, creative and new; and this should apply to all arts companies.”
While aesthetically there are some similarities between ballet and Chinese dance, Yang explains that the latter is best seen as a synthesis, combining classical and traditional Chinese dance, Chinese opera, martial arts, ballet, and much more. It’s highly expressive, he says, and urges audiences to look out for depictions of Mulan’s inner thoughts, such as in the ‘Departure’ duet for her and her father.
Yang’s background is something of a synthesis too. His training was in Chinese folk and classical dance, but on graduating from the Minzu University of China (北京中央民族大學) in Beijing, he shifted to contemporary dance, performing with both the Guangdong and Beijing Modern Dance Companies (廣東現代舞團, 北京現代舞團). He first joined HKDC in 2002 as a principal dancer, returning as assistant artistic director in 2007 after a two-year spell with the city’s City Contemporary Dance Company (城市當代舞蹈團). He was appointed artistic director of HKDC in November 2013. Yang is well known to contemporary dance audiences in China as a choreographer in China, having made works for all four. In Hong Kong, local critics immediately spotted the energy he brought to the stage with works that were both imaginative and challenging.
The Hong Kong Dance Company are holding a free Chinese Dance Workshop, Dance with Mulan, will be held at China Exchange in Gerrard Street in London’s Chinatown on Wednesday April 12, 6:30 pm – 8:00 pm.
As well as demonstrations of the dances, the audience will be invited to learn a Chinese folk dance and hear more about how a dance company develops its work.
Click here to book.
Yang’s blending of styles and influences is also reflected in his establishing a new direction and identity for HKDC, which for decades was synonymous with Chinese classical dance and traditional ethnic dance. Respecting tradition and history remains important, but Yang says, “I have been seeking to interpret traditional Chinese culture from a new perspective, with Hong Kong characters. I want to create Hong Kong dance. As a dance company from Hong Kong, we are closely identified with the city. This metropolis has, perhaps unexpectedly, a very good connection between tradition and modernity. It never loses its root, but it is always open to newness; it embraces almost everything, We have a very interesting, a very individual culture here. We have a lot of movies and comic strips and our own characters. I want to celebrate that.”
That is precisely what he did in Storm Clouds (風雲), which picked up several prizes at the 2015 Hong Kong Dance Awards, the inspiration for which was Storm Riders (風雲), a martial arts comic that ran for 25 years to the end of 2014.
New works like that are important, Yang emphasises. As he told the South China Morning Post in 2014, “If you just stage pieces that people like, you’d soon begin to lose them,” he says, likening that to cooking the same dish for customers over and over again. “After they’ve tasted it, they’d get bored eventually. So you have to give them something new and fresh. It’s only with good quality productions that we can retain, and grow, our audience.”
But reaching out abroad is important too. “I am striving to bring Chinese dance to the Western world,” says Yang. As part of that, the Hong Kong Dance Company are always keen to do other activities around shows, which in London this will include a free Dance with Mulan workshop at the China Exchange (see the box above).
The Legend of Mulan, performed by the Hong Kong Dance Company, is at the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London on April 15, 2017 at 7.30pm.
Running time: 100 minutes (including interval).
For tickets, visit www.southbankcentre.co.uk or call the box office on 0207 960 4200.