If like me, you grew up thinking that the original story of Cinderella included a glass slipper, a fairy godmother and two evil step-sisters you’ve been mistaken. Through the power of music and dance not only have I been corrected but have come to understand that one of the earliest versions of this famous fairy tale was story of Ye Xian, the Chinese Cinderella.
I previewed Untold, the 3rd piece in a series of collaborations between British Chinese composer Alexander Ho and Julia Cheng in the studio. There was no clever lights or fancy staging to hide behind. The seven-piece ensemble stood amongst a sea of instruments ready to play, dance or destroy them. The orchestral landscape consisted of both western classical and Chinese percussion instruments, emphasising the cross-cultural experience/heritage of the cast. I couldn’t tell who could/would play what or when, fuelling the room excitement and uncertainty. The piece is set in the round, creating a world that can be viewed from multiple perspectives, emulating the cyclical nature of the earth, travelling across countries and through time.
Ho and Cheng chose a cast of incredible interdisciplinary artists who inserted their own personal stories of duel identity within the traditional story of Ye Xian. This clever composition allows the audience to see the parallels between our own misinterpretation of Cinderella and the variance of Chinese identity, both for the naïve westerner and even Chinese people themselves.
Chinese whispers ironically came to mind, in this instance, the whisper was cultural appropriation, showing how easy it is for stories to be changed and lost. Strangely enough Untold taught me how little I knew about about Chinese traditions and culture and how often as minorities we fail to see the similarities in our experiences within western landscapes. I am eager to learn more and I am sure all who have now seen the piece feel exactly the same.
This clever and thoughtful interpretation provided food for thought about prejudice, language, tradition and cultural identity. The use of text, dance, voice and music really allows the audience to reflect on their own lived experience of the world.
Even though this was only preview I was brought to tears, particularly by the incredible vocal talents of Keith Pun. Such power and grace as his voice filled every corner of the room. I learned of the Yangqin (played by Reylon Yount) and other Chinese percussion instruments that inhabited the space as well as the familiarity of the flute (played by Daniel Shao) and hip hop/contemporary dance choreography which gave this piece an exceptional distinction like no other.
I will end with this. Ye Xian had gold slippers not glass. She had one half sister and her help came in the form of a magical fish that was thought to be the spirit of her dead mother. A beautiful story retold through dance and music that is a must see. Educational, immersive, intelligent and absolutely stunning. I am excited to see more from the both Ho and Cheng and their teachings of Chinese history, past and present.