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The Ars Poetica of Chinese Dance Theater

Lately the Dresser cannot get enough Chinese culture to satisfy her curious mind. One aspect of this hunger for things Chinese has manifest through the Dresser's love of dance. On November 26, 2009 at the Shaanxi Grand Opera House in Xi'an, China, the Dresser saw the Tang-Dynasty Palace Music and Dances. On January 20, 2010, she saw the Shen Yun Performing Arts show at the Kennedy Center Opera House in Washington, DC. Both shows are based on the art of classical Chinese dance and have connections to Chinese opera.


As in Chinese opera, the philosophy behind Chinese dance theater is to achieve mei or beauty. For example, this comes through graceful rounded movements, the music, the costumes, and the seamless transition from various art forms such as the combining of dance movement with acrobatics. In both the Tang-Dynasty and Shen Yun shows singing is one of the elements, though unlike Chinese opera, the performer delivering song is not delivering the song with dramatic gestures or other skills one would see in a Chinese opera.

SYFanSM.jpgThe Tang-Dynasty show offered ten scenes while the Shen Yun show, a much longer performance, offered about twenty. What the Dresser liked about both shows was the variety. While no repetition of dance scene occurred between the two shows, both shows seemed to follow a similar formula for how to achieve this array of entertainment. The format went something like this: pageantry scenes on the front and back end of the shows, and then a mix of water sleeve dances, instrumental interludes, folk dances from various Ethnic Chinese groups, prop dances (fans, handkerchiefs, plates, lanterns, masks), folk or fairy tale ballet, and dance with martial arts.

What was surprising to the Dresser for both shows that elements of western ballet were used along with the tiny steps and feet close to the ground that characterize movements that only Chinese dancers do. Shen Yun dancers also incorporated elements of what the Dresser characterizes as Russian squat kicks. Some of the Shen Yun dancers (and most had the strength and control to exercise leaping turns that the Dresser has always associated with such Russian dancers (in their prime, of course) as Rudolph Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov. However, the young Shen Yun dancers did not exude the individuality and personalities of such ballet stars. Perhaps that is not allowed in Chinese dance theater, that one dancer should attract so much attention.jumpSm.jpg

While both shows had eye-catching costumes, the Shen Yun costumes were stunning in terms of colors selected and used together as well as details on the costumes (such as beads, coins, gold thread, glitter). The Dresser doesn't know how the Tang-Dynasty show costumes were made, but those for the Shen Yun show were made by hand. Often the costumes provided special effects. Those familiar with Chinese dance movement know the undulating ribbon effect of water sleeves. Water sleeves are usually a secondary white silk sleeve attached to the cuff of the primary sleeve. In the "Heavenly Maidens" scene, the Shen Yun performers not only wear exotic color combinations (dresses that are tastefully both chartreuse and salmon pink) but also wear gauzy white capes that when the dancers whirled, they disappeared. The Dresser felt like she was watching an animation of cream being whipped, a very delicious experience especially since the Dresser no longer indulges in eating such confections.


Traditional Chinese sets in most theater arts are minimal and both theater groups achieved this spareness in different ways. While the Tang-Dynasty Show used sets that were painted with pictures of China's countryside and great cities (including the Great Wall, and the Forbidden City), the Shen Yun Show used projections that often were interactive with the performers. For example in the fairy tale scene "Splitting the Mountain," a goddess who marries a mortal is imprisoned in a cave by her brother. The live performer playing the goddess is transformed into a video figure and whisked into the cave. The brother, a live performer, interacts with the video such that a huge video boulder is sent flying across the entrance of the cave.


Both shows featured instrumental performances. In the Tang-Dynasty Show, the Dresser loved the "Percussion show Gossiping Ducks & Hungry Tiger," which had engaging syncopation and gong accents. She also was jaw-droppingly fascinated by a Chinese trumpet (this instrument sounded like a medieval horn) soloist in "Harvesting Chinese Dates," where the trumpet player had the uncanny ability to sound something like a kazoo. When the Dresser asked about this, her tour guide assured her that this sound was coming from the performer's throat. In the Shen Yun Show, the Dresser particularly loved "Saving the Predestined," an original and melancholic lyric written for the erhu by Xioachun Qi who also performed the piece with piano accompaniment.

Narrating the Shen Yun Show are a pair of emcees who appeared between the scenes to add commentary in English and Mandarin. The Dresser who is a beginning student of Mandarin was able to tune her ear and hear words in Chinese that she knew and therefore benefitted from this element of the show.

The Shen Yun Show also included solo vocal recitals by a soprano, tenor, and baritone. Each sung in the style of western opera with well-supported voices that needed no mic-ing, however, there were mics and so the singers had to stand back to compensate. In two out of three recitals, the singers were invited by one of the emcees to perform encores, which to the Dresser's taste seemed excessive. The song lyrics, which were projected in Chinese and English, made reference to the practice of Falun Gong (also known as Falun Dafa). The Shen Yun Performing Arts group, in fact, is supported by Falun Gong followers, a group that has been and continues to be persecuted in the People's Republic of China. Two particular modern dance scenes--"Nothing Can Block the Divine Path" and "Astounding Conviction"--portray followers of Falun Gong being arrested and beaten by Chinese police but then are rescued or resurrected by divine beings. Animation is used effectively in both scenes.

If the Dresser was asked to characterize the two shows in terms Westerners might relate to. She would say that the Tang-Dynasty Show was something like acts produced on the Ed Sullivan Show in the late 1950s and early 1960s, while the Shen Yun Show was a combination of the Ed Sullivan Show, Ziegfield Follies, Walt Disney, and Martha Graham.

The Dresser does not dismiss the idea that the producers of Shen Yun Performing Arts have a message threaded through their show and therefore leaves the poet Paul Dutton to comment with his "Missed Haiku." The poem appears in an anthology of ars poetica, a form of poetic statement often illuminating a poet's philosophy about the nature of poetry.


In the only room that matters
a slight sound
obscures the one thought that counts.

By Paul Dutton
from Poem, Home: An Anthology of Ars Poetica

Copyright © 1991 Paul Dutton

Photo Credit: Shen Yun Performing Arts
Copyright © 2010 Shen Yun Performing Arts


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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on January 23, 2010 2:38 PM.

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