The 2018 “Le French May” opened in Hong Kong with The Painting on the Wall from the Ballet Preljocaj. The inspiration for this new work is a Chinese fairy tale from the Qinq Dynasty-era Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, collected (not unlike the Brothers Grimm, except more than a century earlier) by Pu Songling and published posthumously in 1740.
In this story, two travellers take shelter in a small temple. An old hermit shows them a wall painting of beautiful women. One of the travellers is fascinated by a woman in the painting, one with long, loose hair, a sign that she is unmarried; he stares at her so intently that he finds himself transported into the world of the painting where he courts and marries her. He spends several years there until some warriors chase him back out of the world of the painting. His friend had missed him for only a few minutes, but when they look at the painting again, the woman hair is done up in a chignon, a sign that she is married.
The Ballet Preljocaj elegantly renders this Asian story is a largely Western idiom. The music is both eclectic and familiar. Much of it seems to be be inspired by 1970s and 80s rock and often has a heavy rhythmic beat. Other parts sound like a Moog synthesiser of old. All of it is accessible. The staging, while minimalist, has elements of brilliance, most spectacularly the semi-transparent projection of long strands of blowing hair; the backlit dance scenes of warriors seem to echo Southeast Asian depictions of Hindu epics. Yet in what is surely a deliberate attempt to show the universality of the story, the setting had few geographical references could have been almost anywhere. The ten dancers performed admirably and deserved more than the virtual anonymity afforded them in house programme.
If one had tried to define what a European arts festival in Hong Kong should do, The Painting on the Wall, a very well-executed and accessible Western dance interpretation of a classic Chinese story, makes a good case for being exactly it.