Review: The Legend of Lanling by Hong Kong Dance Company – starkly spectacular, superbly performed despite some flaws

Hong Kong Dance Company’s new full-length production, The Legend of Lanling, continues artistic director Yang Yuntao’s quest to combine Chinese dance with martial arts.

The company’s dancers have been undergoing martial arts training for several years and have now added traditional Chinese drumming to their repertoire. Both sets of skills are on dazzling display in the new work, a starkly spectacular piece of theatre that is visually stunning and superbly performed, despite some flaws.

Warrior Lanling is the sobriquet given to a real-life Chinese hero of the Northern Qi dynasty, Gao Changgong (541-573). Famed for both his heroic military exploits and his gentle nature, Lanling is said to have worn a mask on the battlefield to disguise the beauty of his face and terrify the enemy – his combination of noble character and fierce fighting skills is the very essence of the classic martial arts hero.

He met a tragic end when the emperor had him poisoned.

Principal dancers Ong Tze Shen (being carried) and Ho Ho-fei (with mask) surrounded by the ensemble (warriors) in The Legend of Lanling. Photo: Worldwide Dancer Project

The choreography, by Yang with principal dancers Ong Tze Shen and Ho Ho-fei as assistant choreographers, is heavily based on martial arts and is brilliantly executed by the whole company, with both male and female dancers as warriors.

Ong and Ho also share the title role, with Ho embodying the ruthless warrior and Ong the complex human being.

Principal dancers Ho (left) and Ong in The Legend of Lanling. Photo: Mak Cheong-wai/@Moon 9 Image

A device employed to excellent effect contrasts high-speed movement by the group with slow motion by an individual – notably when Ong’s Lanling circles very slowly round the central stage where the warriors are fighting.

A lengthy duet for Ho and Ong is a wonderful piece of dancing, performed with great intensity and impressive technique. As he had already proved in 2022’s outstanding Nezha: Untold Solitude, Ong is one of those rare artists whose every movement has meaning – excellent though Ho and the other dancers are, he is the focal point throughout and it is hard to take your eyes off him.

Despite its undoubted power, The Legend of Lanling stays on one note all the way through – after the first 40 minutes, I began to crave more contrast and variety in both visuals and choreography. Yang and his collaborators have chosen to take a non-narrative approach. Unfortunately, the treatment is so abstract that it fails to generate any deeper emotion and leaves one with no clear sense of Lanling’s persona.

The ensemble plays drums in The Legend of Lanling. Photo: Worldwide Dancer Project

Another issue is the lopsided structure: the first (and much longer) half is far stronger than the second. After the interval, a scene with warriors beating huge drums on both sides of the stage reaches a climax, which makes for an excellent finish. However, instead of stopping there, the piece carries on to end on a low-key scene which comes as a let-down.

The production reunites the creative team from Nezha: Untold Solitude and shows again how much talent there is in Hong Kong’s design scene.

Yeung Tsz-yan’s magnificent lighting sets the mood and creates striking effects to highlight key moments. Mandy Tam’s costumes and Jan Wong’s set evoke a harsh, monochrome world of war. The whole stage is covered in damp soil, representing the mud of Lanling’s many battlefields; by the end, the warriors are covered in it, like soldiers from World War I.

Prince Lanling faces his death in The Legend of Lanling. Photo: Worldwide Dancer Project

A slope rises up at the back of the stage, of which Yang makes clever use – bodies roll slowly over and over down it; Lanling himself descends or ascends it, singled out by a shaft of light.

Laurence Lau’s minimalist score is well-judged and augmented by the tremendous drumming performed by the company’s amazingly multitalented dancers.

“The Legend of Lanling”, Hong Kong Dance Company, Kwai Tsing Theatre Auditorium. Reviewed: April 13.


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