Bristol Ballet’s ‘Mulan, The Legend’ Not delicate like ‘Swan Lake,’ ‘it’s empowering’

BY TOM NETHERLAND SPECIAL TO THE HERALD COURIER

BRISTOL, Va. — Five girls in resplendent red and one in white stood effortlessly on tippy-toes Monday evening upstairs at Bristol Ballet.

They each portray ancient Chinese characters.

The dancer in white, Tory Dillard, plays Mulan. The high school senior stars in Bristol Ballet’s “Mulan, The Legend” on May 13 at the Para-mount Center for the Arts in Bristol, Tennessee.

“It’s not delicate like ‘Swan Lake’ or ‘The Nutcracker,’” said Dillard, 17. “It’s empowering.”

And that’s unusual. Given the time from whence the tale of Mulan came, women in China were to be seen and not heard.

“The ballad (‘Ode to Mulan’) was composed in either the 5th or 6th century,” said Michele Plescia, artistic director of Bristol Ballet. “It was extremely unusual. Women weren’t supposed to do these kinds of things.”

Quickly, war is afoot. Mulan’s aged father seemed bound for the battlefield, which distressed Mulan. She devised a plan to duel with her father for the right to go to battle. She won.

“She’s extremely remarkable,” Plescia said. “It’s neat, to take a story about a heroine and make her strong and make her a leader and not just another pretty face.”

Initial reactions among Plescia’s charges at Bristol Ballet measured as lukewarm at best.

“I was apprehensive about it,” said Callie Huffman, 16. “How are we going to do this? But I like it that there are a lot of different as-pects to this show. You have happiness in it. You have sadness in it.”

Central to the story, Mulan’s no wilting flower. When called upon, she fights like a man. She becomes a warrior, a hero among men. Consequently, there’s a physical strength and aura about her that’s unusual in what classifies as a typical ballet.

“There’s a lot to like,” said Noah Cook, 13. “It’s not usual. I like the theme. It’s a love story and adventure.”

Bristol’s Chris Laing of Blue Ridge Kung Fu choreographed the battle scenes. He will also appear as a guest artist in the ballet.

“He taught all of my girls these battle moves,” Plescia said. “They’re using six foot battle staffs and swords. No blood.”

Consider the chore. When Disney issued its animated version of “Mulan” in 1998, they hadn’t a concern relative to the manner through which they would tell the story. They leaned on dialogue. Ballet does not have that advantage.

“Telling a story is a lot of work. When you tell a story without words, it’s difficult,” Plescia said. “It’s pantomime with dance. Like when Mulan is sad because her father is going to war, the music has to reflect that.”

Plescia acquired rights to the music used by the Hong Kong Ballet in its production of “Mulan” last summer from the composer. Complex in form, considerable challenges accompanied her choreography and subsequent instruction to her dancers.

“I couldn’t use the music with the younger kids. It was way too complex,” she said. “If you’re just listening to the music, it sounds great. There are some lovely parts. Trying to choreograph it was a challenge.”

Ultimately, Plescia’s dancers bought into the story, the music and the point. As a result, it strikes like few if any other ballets as staged by Bristol Ballet during the company’s long history.

“It’s like an action movie live,” Huffman said.

Neither delicate nor dainty, “Mulan, The Legend” adheres to the nature of its lead character. She’s tough as a nail, pretty as a sunset and stars in a ballet that could fool many an unsuspecting soul into thinking that it’s not a ballet at all. But it is.

“It’s a neat show. It’s a different show,” Plescia said. “It’s not tiaras and tutus. But it’s still a ballet. Come and see it.”