What I encountered was a confusing mishmash of genres presented in a crass commercialism with mediocre dancing and a steady stream of cola-guzzling latecomers
I had been invited to Sadler’s Wells to see Chinese Calligraphy Music and Dance, organised inter alia by the Austrian-Chinese Cultural Exchange Organisation. (Those two countries would certainly have a lot to exchange, however unlikely the organisation sounds.)
Well, I’m never one to turn down an invitation to a cultural event, so I prepared myself for a spiritual exploration of the noble art of calligraphy, mystic dance and a touch of Zen, perhaps to answer some existential question such as ‘What am I doing here?’
Instead what I encountered was a confusing mishmash of genres presented in a crass commercialism with mediocre dancing and a steady stream of cola-guzzling latecomers, which made me think, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’
The New London Orchestra conducted by Ronald Corp opened with an over-amplified rendition of Johann Strauss’ Einzugsmarsch. The sound was thankfully adjusted but it still left me wondering what on earth does Strauss have to do with calligraphy. The answer is – and remained throughout the evening – absolutely nothing. (It also served to point out quite how odd the Austrian connection was.)
Celebrated calligraphist Li Binquan appeared on stage with his giant brush and inkpot and wrote as quickly as possible across a silk backdrop to the accompaniment of the Fledermaus overture. There was a translation on two screens at the side of the stage but they were badly angled and the translation too small.
This, coupled with over-zealous camera operators with far-stretching booms (eager to record that promotional DVD), took any hope of spirituality out of this beautiful art form.
I turned to my sparsely informative programme. Alas it explained neither the poetry nor history of calligraphy nor the show’s theme nor its concept. There was no overall director, which explained its total lack of cohesion. And the programme omitted to list the soloists from the two dance companies, Na’er Dance Company from China and the less-than-impressive Chantry Dance Company.
At one point the orchestra played The Haunted Ballroom by Geoffrey Toye and Li Binquan was back again with his ink pot apparently writing a poem about the moon. The dancers flitted about him with little purpose, focus or direction. If this poem is about the moon, then why not play Song to the Moon by Dvorak or the Moonlight Sonata and have a large moon rising on a projection? A simple thing to do in a theatre.
It was beyond embarrassing and we were just about to leave when the highlight of the first half appeared: Chinese dancers in Brazilian carnival outfits backlit in red, dancing in silhouette, in a Tales of the Unexpected meets Live and Let Die style. This was performed to, wait for it, Matinees Musicales by Benjamin Britten. I mean, honest to God!
At this point many people left, expressing their shock that Sadler’s Wells could allow an external production so cheap and dreadful into its hallowed theatre. Shame on them.
I felt so embarrassed for conductor Ronald Corp that he had to be involved in this travesty and I only hope he was paid obscene amounts of money to do it. This thrown-together mess is akin to assembling a group of hoodie street artists from Croydon, surrounding them with Morris dancers, spraying graffiti to the accompaniment of music from the Andes… Actually I could probably make that work better than this. Get Raymond Gubbay on the line will you?
And now for a pleasant interlude: the Song to the Moon from Rusalka by Dvorak, sung by Renee Fleming