The Hong Kong Dance Company in The Legend of Mulan

Royal Festival Hall, London
April 15, 2017

Charlotte Kasner

The Legend of Mulan is a traditional Chinese tale, best known in the West through Disney’s 1998 animated telling. Essentially, the young peasant girl Mulan interrupts her spinning to disguise herself as a man and go to war instead of her grandfather. After ten years of fighting heroically, she heads for home. She is summoned to the Emperor and decorated for her courage. He says that he will grant her any wish, but she just wants to return to her spinning.

Unfortunately, the 90 minutes grinds past slowly and loudly. What is akin to lift muzak roars at your consciousness. The volume was ramped up so much that some were forced to sit with their fingers in their ears. Cheesy synthesisers with the odd hint of real instruments, a clarinet here and there, some percussion.

A battle scene from The Legend of MulanPhoto W12 Production
A battle scene from The Legend of Mulan
Photo W12 Production

The dancers are excellent and clearly well-trained but Yang Yuntao’s choreography has them perform the same steps over and over again. Women waft, warriors do multiple barrel turns. As the music grinds on, cliché piles upon cliché. More barrel turns, a bit of tumbling, the dancers often moving bits of set around so that they can run up them and then do their acrobatics. At one point, women drift around with lanterns. Pretty in its way, but very predictable, the Disneyesque pap undermining any depth the story might have.

There is so much exciting dance coming out of China and Hong Kong that the blandness of The Legend of Mulan is baffling. The dancers are clearly capable of so much more than they are given. It may be an old story, but one that clearly has contemporary resonance, yet this is ignored. There is no attempt at subtlety or depth. Emotion is abandoned in favour of emoting. The set is perfunctory. More effort goes into moving it around than into finding something interesting to do once it is locked in place. By far the worst is that music, though, which combines the worst of Hollywood with cheap and nasty instrumentation, all blasted out as if that will make up for the lack of substance.