A classic Chinese fable about the love affair between a human scholar and a fox spirit provides the narrative for this Shandong Acrobatic Troupe show.
It makes for a dreamlike, often ethereal performance where the lines between the living and spirit worlds are blurred as the audience is drawn into a magical space full of both mortal and immortal characters.
It was not always entirely clear exactly what was happening in the OzAsia Festival performance (the difficult-to-read introductory words suspended on a cloud about the Festival Theatre stage before acts one and two weren’t overly helpful), but that mattered little. Maximum enjoyment at a show like this comes from just going with the flow and revelling in the incredible acrobatic talent on display – and there was plenty of that.
From the opening scenes featuring simultaneous aerial, pyramid and hoop acrobatics, we knew we were in for a treat as the stage became a whirlwind of tumbles, flips, leaps, twists and dives. Founded in 1969, Shandong Acrobatic Troupe has perfected the art of wowing an audience with near-perfect choreography and risk-taking acts that provide plenty of ooh-aah moments; even when there was a minor misstep, it was corrected so quickly you felt you might have imagined it.
But the story at the heart of this production – part of a collection of supernatural tales written by Songling Pu during the Qing Dynasty – ensures that Dream of a Ghost Story isn’t just a collection of clever tricks. It also combines elements of contemporary dance and traditional folklore with stunning costumes and clever set and lighting design to create an ever-changing mood during the unfolding of what is essentially a story of good versus evil.
One of the most beautiful moments saw the white-costumed adult fairy fox (Zhang Zou) and scholar (Guo Qinglon) in a graceful and sensual routine on an aerial hoop, while their younger selves briefly frolicked across the stage below. In another, the fox contorted her body while balanced on a pole atop a lit white sphere as snowflakes fell from above.
Then suddenly the stage became a playground, a riot of colour and movement as more of the 50-plus cast appeared, juggling diabolos and skipping rope in a fast and energetic performance.
Act one also gave a glimpse of the evil to come, as the fearsome snake demon slithered from the sky and snatched up the gentle fox, with help from a band of sylph-like followers clad from head to toe in green.
The upbeat vibe returned briefly at the beginning of the second act, with a routine involving plate spinning and the juggling of large Chinese drums with both feet and hands.
But then the tale became much darker as things went awry in the red-curtained chamber of the fairy fox and the scholar, with the snake demon seemingly managing to steal the scholar’s soul. Ensuing scenes featured skeletons, back-hooded demons, and a whip-cracking, gladiator-style tormentor. Harsh, loud, cacophonous music and plaintiff cries provided the soundtrack; gone were the virginal-white robes of previous scenes, replaced instead by red and orange costumes highlighted by an ominous black background.
And just when it seemed the children at this supposedly family-friendly show might end up with a few nightmares, the scholar was revived and it all came to a close on a more joyous note, with yet more impressive acrobatics.
Dream of a Ghost Story is at times strange and surreal, perhaps even a little discordant, but it showcases stunning acrobatic talent and succeeded beautifully in transporting its audience to another world.
Dream of a Ghost Story was performed for two nights only as part of the 2014 OzAsia Festival, which continues until September 20.
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OzAsia shines spotlight on Shandong (festival highlights)
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