Review: ‘Dragon Boat Racing,’ a Sea of Love and Music

Review: ‘Dragon Boat Racing,’ a Sea of Love and Music
Li Xing, bottom, and Li Yanchao portray the central couple. CreditPaula Lobo for The New York Times

On Thursday, the Guangdong Song & Dance Ensemble from southern China made its United States debut. But the experience of watching the company’s “Dragon Boat Racing” at the David H. Koch Theater would have been familiar to anyone who has caught another of the state-run Chinese troupes that have visited the Koch in recent years. What they bring are kitschy spectacles, melodramas told through broad acting and ballet conflated with acrobatics, all underlined by formulaic music, Chinese and Western.

“Dragon Boat Racing” is distinct in being about music. It takes its title from a Cantonese song and tells a story (by Tang Dong) of that work’s creation in the 1930s. The hero, Nian (Li Xing), spends a lot of time with musical manuscript paper in his hands, tapping it as he gets ideas. His efforts in composition are entwined with thwarted romance. He’s in love with Ling (Li Yanchao, who is not related to Mr. Li), and she with him, but his father makes him marry someone else. Nian’s younger male cousin and musical collaborator secretly loves Ling, too, yet by the end of the first act, they all have bigger problems: an invasion by the Japanese.

“Dragon Boat Racing,” at the David H. Koch Theater, features the Guangdong Song & Dance Ensemble in its American debut. CreditPaula Lobo for The New York Times

The Japanese soldiers, unsurprisingly, are one-dimensional villains, but all of the characters are flat. The program describes Nian as “a valiant, idealistic modern man” and Ling as “a modern woman who believes in free and romantic love.” Her father is “a man of emulative character.” Neither the acting nor the choreography and direction (both are by Han Zhen and Zhou Liya) add any nuance.

The production tells its tale clearly and efficiently, setting each scene with a deft rearrangement of picturesque panels and props. Yet this clarity is purchased at the cost of originality. Often the lovers interact, à la Romeo and Juliet, as the rest of the cast stays frozen. They are lucid and lithe dancers — he can stretch his legs to heights as impressive as hers — and as the sappy strings in Du Ming’s score crest for the 10th or 20th time, Ms. Li is able to wrap her body around Mr. Li’s in one elaborate and meaningless lift after another.

The group numbers are no more striking. The water sports theme leads to the spinning of long red paddles and short red drumsticks, propellers that propel the dance nowhere. Occasionally, there are hints of something bizarre — weird walks, a pummeling of thighs — but these quickly drown in dull convention.

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