I really take no joy in having to write a review this negative. From yesterday’s Chronicle:

“Was Andrew Wood, executive director of the San Francisco International Arts Festival, making disclaimers Thursday night? Introducing the dance-theater production “Speaking Chinese,” Wood explained that the collaborators, some based in San Francisco, some in China, had been able to work in each other’s presence only a handful of times. Nonetheless, he said, the performers were excited to share what they had and eager for audience feedback.

It sounded like the precurtain spiel for a work-in-progress, not a world premiere, and perhaps that’s the kindest way of viewing this hourlong show, which repeats at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum tonight before touring in China. It isn’t that “Speaking Chinese” is terribly offensive, it’s just that there isn’t much to it, despite a roster of collaborators that makes the show a poster child for the festival’s goal of fostering international connections.

There’s the Chinese Culture Center, local choreographer Kim Epifano and her Epiphany Productions, Shanghai producers Reckless Moments, and Beijing producer Honglan Studio. “Speaking Chinese” has its own composer (Zhu Jian’er), dramaturge (Barry Plews) and even its own interpreter (Hu He). Despite all that, this adaptation of Eileen Chang’s 1943 novella “Love in a Fallen City” comes off as a series of tentative sketches that only hint at the richer story.

If you don’t know Chang’s book (and though it’s inspired a movie and several plays, one should assume that the majority of the audience does not), you will be utterly lost by this string of bafflingly bland and choreographically thin duets. True, Epifano and team set themselves a challenge in using just two dancers, the lithe National Ballet of China star Hou Honglan and frequent Epiphany Productions performer C. Derrick Jones. But the tools of theater are many – voice-overs, props, backdrops, dramatic lighting – and though “Speaking Chinese” uses all of these in a modest way, none tell the average viewer that Honglan’s Bai Liusu is a divorcee trapped by repressive conditions, or that Jones’ Fan Liuyan is a playboy, or that part of their affair is happening in Hong Kong at the time of the Japanese attack and occupation. You’ll be lucky even to catch the characters’ names.”

Click here for the full review.

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