Gansu Dance Drama & Opera Ensemble’s Silk Road is a colourful, vibrant depiction of an ancient Chinese tale, taken from the famed Dunhuang Frescoes of the Gansu province of China. This production was originally created in 1979 by the then Gansu Opera and Dance Troupe as Tales of the Silk Road, and was adapted for film and toured around Europe and Asia in 1982. Silk Road was reconceived in 2008 in celebration of the Beijing Olympics, where it was performed in its current form by the Gansu Ensemble. The piece has been performed in 400 cities worldwide in the 34 years since its creation, but this is its first performance in London following the Beijing Olympics six years ago. Watching Silk Road in Sadler’s Wells’ Peacock Theatre in was a thoroughly enjoyable and unique experience.

Silk Road © Gansu Ensemble
Silk Road
© Gansu Ensemble

Silk Road tells the renowned Chinese story of Dunhuang painter Shenbi Zhang and his daughter, Ying Niang. They save the life of a Persian businessman, Yunus, but Ying Niang is kidnapped by robbers. Shenbi Zhang eventually finds Ying Niang after she has spent several years as a Geisha, and Yunus must bribe her captors with gold for her freedom. Ying Niang and Yunus flee from China to Persia, where she is honoured but unhappy as she has left her father behind in China, where he is forced to paint the Mogao Grottoes. Both father and daughter resolve to find the other. Ying Niang and Yunus leave Persia with blessings, but Shenbi Zhang flees his home with a bad omen. Meeting by chance at the city border, their reunion is cut short when Shenbi Zhang is shot by bandits employed by the city mayor. Ying Niang avenges her fathers death by accusing her father’s murderer in front of the Military Governor, and the story ends happily for Ying Niang and Yunus.

The 47-strong Gansu Ensemble present an engaging production, which blends Chinese classical dance with other modern dance forms. The piece is peppered with buddhist imagery, balletic elements and visible influences from Thai and Indian dance forms. Silk Road is a marvelous display, with stunning, vibrant costumes and complex scenery creating a fantastic arena for the dance itself. Each of six short acts had a different backdrop and set of costumes, representing the various times and places central to the story.

Ying Niang © Gansu Ensemble
Ying Niang
© Gansu Ensemble

The principal dancers – Li Li, Chen Chen, An Ning, Suo Jingxing and Song Yulong – performed incredible sequences with impressive strength and skill, taking complex and acrobatic choreography in their stride. However, the ensemble members’ performances were not as polished as might be expected from such an established company. While individuals shone, there did not seem to be a strong focus on timing or technique among the large cast as a whole, so although the sheer number of cast members is impressive, the Gansu Ensemble’s size presents logistical issues that a smaller cast may not face.

The very eclectic nature of Silk Road, which draws on so many different cultural influences, means the production has no clear aesthetic, and various cultural forms become confused. The final scene, for example, the “friendly alliance party of 27 countries” puts forward inaccurate depictions of the nations involved. Various ancient civilisations are given unsubtle representations: costumes imitate clothing styles worn in India, and certain coded forms of movement – such as Thai dance – are reproduced in simplified form.

Despite its faults, the story shines through as an important window into Chinese cultural history, as it depicts peaceful relations between ancient China and other civilisations along the Silk Road. The Silk Road (or Silk Route) was instrumental in developing early international relations. Trade on the Silk Road opened the first long-distance, political and economic interactions between the ancient civilization of China and the rest of the world. Silk Road might almost be read as a gesture of China’s goodwill toward the countries the ensemble visit. This colourful, glittering display presents ancient China to its modern audiences with energy and flair.