Emma H. Zhang reviews Yang Yuntao’s Dance Theater production Nezha: Untold Solitude (2022).
Yang Yuntao’s Dance Theater production Nezha: Untold Solitude is a powerful performance of the mythical story of Nezha, which also captures the profound loss and the untold solitude of Hong Kong in 2022. Nezha in this performance is not the dragon-slaying child hero celebrated in the 1979 animation Nezha Conquers the Dragon King, nor is he the terrifying murderous youth in Xi Xi’s 1987 short story “Family Affairs at Chentang Military Base” (陳塘關總兵府家事). More like the Nezha in the epic novel Creation of the Gods (Fengshen Yanyi 封神演義), Yang Yuntao’s Nezha is morally ambiguous. He is a child with superhuman powers, born with the ability to transform heaven and earth. Yet his recklessness led to his killing and dismembering the dragon prince, causing disaster to fall on his family. Trapped and stifled by his father’s flaming pavilion, Nezha’s power, and the immense possibilities that came with it, implodes, turning into ash.
The show opens with darkness. A giant ring, about 10 meters across, is suspended over the dark stage, glowing with soft golden light. The ring represents the ring that Nezha was born with, the Ring of Heaven and Earth (乾坤圈) which serves as a marker of Nezha’s mythical identity, separating him from ordinary children. Soft light illuminates center stage and from an enormous white sheet of paper, life emerges, shapeless, formless, striving upward, towards the source of light. Nezha is not born a child, but as a Divine Pearl (靈珠子), representing primal chaos (hundun 混沌) – endless possibilities. Without the imprint of his father, he has the freedom and potential to be a man of his own and profoundly change the world he was born into. Brilliantly portrayed by Ong Tse Shen, Nezha is full of life and energy, his bright red costume distinguishing him from the monotonous white figures that surround him. Dancers in white move in orderly unison, while only Nezha moves with free-flowing grace and childlike delight.
The stage darkens again, and ominous music fills the theatre with dread as blue waves wash over the screen. Oppressive white and blue light beams on the faces of the audience, piercing their eyes, removing any anonymity. Trouble is at hand. The watery screen lifts, revealing a back-lighted stage with a row of dark blue figures clad in war gear. Smoke arises, and the dark figures rush from the back of the stage towards the audience. The stage lights up, the dragon prince is flying at center stage, elevated above everyone’s head, proud and unassailable. Huang Haiyun’s perfect balance and control in mid-air gives the dragon prince Ao Bing an unearthly demeanor. Clad in white war gear, Ao Bing’s cold, oppressive presence makes a stark contrast to Nezha’s childlike playfulness. The audience are thus invited to sympathize with Nezha, to share his confusion and his anger. When the fatal confrontation leaves the dragon prince hanging upside down mid-stage, stripped naked, the audience continue to accept Nezha despite his reckless use of violence.
Nezha returns home to face his father, Li Jing. Portrayed by Li Han, a dancer not much older than Nezha, Li Jing puts on a warrior’s armor and transforms from youth to father. Unlike Li Jing in Creation of the Gods, a harsh disciplinarian who shows no mercy to his troublesome child, the Li Jing in this production is a man of two minds. He is torn between the instinct to protect and the desire to punish. This mental turmoil is represented by his attire – his left arm bare, representing rage; his right arm coated in a long scholar’s sleeve, representing compassion. Li Jing’s movements, in one moment restrained, in another explosive, also shows the ambivalence of the father. The giant ring that hangs over the stage tilts, and Li Jing’s anger overwhelms his compassion. The ring burns, evoking the fire from under Li Jing’s magic pavilion. Youth clad in white collapses one by one and Nezha ends his earthly life by returning to the white sheet of paper from which he was born. In this production, Nezha does not die for the flood raised by the dragon clan but dies to appease his father’s rage.
When the stage is lit again Nezha is no longer a solitary figure. He is dressed in the same costume as other dancers. A group of young men indistinguishable from each other, huddled together, timid in their movements, looking around at the new world they were ushered into. Naanyam (Cantonese teahouse song) music rises, but unlike in the first scene when Nezha’s personal story unfolded, in this final scene, the singer relates “Looking down on earth, it’s all but a game. All that happens is borne by one doer. All the emotions are sung by one singer. Songs that echo through eternity”. Nezha’s world had been reconstructed. Only one voice can be heard, and all the rest must sing together in unison, dance and move by the command of one voice.
Thus, Nezha is reborn with his distinct individuality erased, the singular child with the power and dignity to defy a dragon vanishes into a faceless crowd, aimlessly running in circles. The giant ring hovering overhead descends slowly upon the dancers, circling suffocatingly over their heads, their necks, and their waists, surrounding them like a noose and a yoke. The giant ring becomes the unyielding turn of the wheel of fortune, the temporality of human life, and the inescapable curse of fate. This image of Nezha’s rebirth is intentionally anticlimactic. In contrast to the Nezha myth, the Hong Kong Nezha was not reborn with an indestructible lotus-reincarnated body; he did not ride on his Wind-Fire Wheels (風火輪), nor did he challenge his father with his Fire-tipped Spear (火尖槍). The Hong Kong Nezha is reborn into a world where order triumphs over spontaneity, where unalterable predictability crushes the possibility of generational change. Nezha is reborn into an ever-shrinking world that offers him little to do except desperately running on the circular track he was destined to follow.
The myth of Nezha is an eternal story about the conflict between youth and establishment. The two contrasting father figures in the myth, Li Jing, the restrictive disciplinarian; and Taiyi, the protective, enabling teacher, embody contrasting approaches to authority. Li Jing is a disappointing father figure whose authority over Nezha rests ultimately on his magic pavilion, a powerful weapon that subjects Nezha by sheer force and fear. Taiyi is Nezha’s ideal father whom he trusts whenever he gets into trouble. In this production, Taiyi the ideal father is completely absent, leaving Nezha without guidance, understanding, or protection, making his solitude even more debilitating. This interpretation of the Nezha myth is perhaps suitable for a post-National Security Law Hong Kong, where a generation of youth is disciplined by fear and force and, like Nezha, one of the pearls of the orient is a pearl no more.
Dr. Emma H. Zhang is a lecturer of English in the Language Centre of Hong Kong Baptist University. Her research interests include comparative literature and comparative mythology. She has written on the subjects of Contemporary Asian American Literature, Chinese Mythology, as well as Life Writing. She has also conducted projects in E-learning and Virtual Exchange and serves as a Global Connect program facilitator with Soliya.