New YorkThe Shed
June 26 – July 27, 2019
Director Chen Shi-Zheng's Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise, a premiere for The Shed's inaugural season of programming, is billed as a “kung-fu musical,” meant to be innovative in its combination of cultural forms and sensibilities. Instead, it's a confusing mishmash.
The Shed is part of a massive development project dubbed “Hudson Yards,” essentially a new city constructed over Manhattan's far Westside commuter rail yards, and nestled inside a bend in the High Line. The project has been planned, in some form, since the 1980s, and features designer stores, celebrity-chef restaurants, luxury high-rises, office space, and an extension of the 7-subway train line. The New York Times reported on March 9, 2019, that the Hudson Yards development project has received $6 billion in tax breaks and government assistance. That's twice what was offered to Amazon for its proposed HQ2 in Long Island City, Queens. The High Line deposits tourists next to The Shed and its adjacent high-end mall, turning the nominally public space into a consumerist conveyer belt. The sterile aesthetic feels exclusive and unattainable—devoid of risk—and it's hard to imagine that anything interesting could happen here.
These observations don't have direct bearing on Dragon Spring but they demonstrate the financial ecosystem in which The Shed and its commissions must thrive. Impressively, the venue only shows original works, and favors artistic cross-pollination. This thoughtful curation may result in some truly spectacular collaborations, but The Shed is no home for experimentation. With neighbors like Dior and WarnerMedia, it has to earn its keep. Consequentially, Dragon Spring features blockbuster names, like Chen and the pop artist Sia. It's gratifying to see London-based choreographer Akram Khan receive top billing as well, but the combination is suspiciously scattershot.
The plot is vaguely that of Star Wars, re-hashed by writers of the children's movie trilogy Kung Fu Panda. House of Dragon, a secret kung-fu sect, protects waters of immortality hidden in Flushing, Queens. The rebellious daughter of the house runs off with a mysterious man she meets at a nightclub, and they eventually have twins together. As it turns out, the man is after her family's mystical water. Thanks to a betrayal by House of Dragon's kung-fu captain, the man kills his wife and infant daughter, and absconds with his son. But the wife and daughter are brought back to life and the former couple raise their children separately, training the daughter to defend the house and the son to take it over. Unknown to each other, the twins meet at a nightclub on their eighteenth birthday. Eventually they learn the truth, meet in battle, and defend the House of Dragon together. The fact that the villain is surprised to see his daughter and former wife alive, despite knowing their family has access to immortality water, is such a glaringly obvious plot oversight that one wants to get up and leave.
Chen suggests in the program notes that Dragon Spring is a new kind of musical. Perhaps, in its melding of contemporary dance and kung-fu forms, it is, at least, occasionally new. The best moment in the show comes during the mother and daughter's resurrection. The dancers, as disciples of House of Dragon, form a ritualistic mass, moving in weighted, complex rhythm with the music. Water fills the stage from an invisible source, creating an ankle-deep pool that glitters and splashes with their steps. Perhaps the water imbues the warriors with enough power to raise the dead, or maybe their fervor makes its magic real.
The rest of the show, though, fails to conjure the elegance and power of kung-fu. A musical is inherently multidisciplinary; ideally, the various art forms reinforce a clear aesthetic and help tell the story. Dragon Spring is under such strain from its random association of parts that not even the well crafted ones save it. The hackneyed script is poorly delivered, and the set looks like an abandoned aquarium. The video design does little more than project different colors and shapes around the space. The Sia score—a re-mix of existing songs—is piped in via an atrocious sound system, which buzzes with the compression of a file streaming off of Spotify. Dragon Spring lacks a live orchestra, an offense to the ethos of musical theater. PeiJu Chien-Pott, a Martha Graham Dance Company principal and one of the greatest living modern dancers, plays the wayward daughter-turned mother of the twins. She barely dances and instead limps through two vocal solos. By the time two hours have passed, it's impossible to feel much beyond indifference.
Dragon Spring missed the opportunity to creatively question the immigrant American experience through the fantastical lens of eternal life. Culture is preserved inside of people—would living forever make that culture richer, or would it become stagnant? What's it like to be a secret kung-fu warrior, when life as an immigrant is already a complex negotiation of codes and identities? Maybe there's someone in Flushing, Queens, who's attempting to answer those questions in their own, genuinely innovative, form.