Red Poppy, billed as "China's all-female percussion ensemble," is, alas, much more and much less than that. The group, which appeared Thursday evening at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage, diluted what might have been a promising program of high-energy drumming with a mixture of insipid synth-pop, New Age sonic mush, narrative inanities and a cloying, near-lethal dose of Las Vegas cheesiness.
Smiling toothpaste-ad smiles, dressed in tight pants and sleeveless blouses that would seem at home both in martial-arts dojos and in the artificial cages once reserved for 1960s go-go dancers, the 11 members of the troupe played for almost an hour -- not only whacking their instruments but chanting, whining, singing and encouraging the audience to clap along with them, in ye-olde-rock-festival style. The music, however, was uniformly worthless, unless one wanted to grant an exemption for "The Flight of the Bumblebee" and "Gaite Parisienne" -- all tarted up and played on amplified trap drums and xylophone -- which I certainly don't.
Worse yet were the bizarre skits, one of which -- described as a musical depiction of the "happy and sweet relationship between two generations of nuns" -- had to be seen to be believed, involving as it did tired women wobbling and pretending to fall asleep at their percussion instruments, mouse-like squeaking from one of the leading protagonists, boo-hoo wailing from another, and the infernal buzzing of (the ultimate soulless nightmare) artificial cell phones.
When the musicians -- all of whom are obviously quite skilled -- actually got around to the fierce give-and-take of collective percussion playing, they were often quite exciting, in much the same manner as the troupe Kodo has practiced and perfected over the past few decades. They rattled, roared, pounced and parried in high style, and they were fun to watch as they rolled their hips and steeled their arms for yet another attack on a variety of hapless instruments. I particularly enjoyed a raucous "Dueling Banjos"-style duet for two huge drums titled "Bull-Fighting Tiger," although this, too, would have been meaningless without the visual component.
Red Poppy has everything that seems to be most valued in the entertainment business nowadays: attractive young women; a sort of cosmetic multiculturalism that touches a lot of bases without settling long enough to give any of them proper due; undercurrents of sex and violence with a glamorized suggestion that the combination might be forbidden fun. With the proper marketing, this group could be a huge success. Maybe then it will get around to making music.