A Window on the East
By Valerie Gladstone
Lincoln Center Festival spotlights contemporary Chinese Dance, Theater and Opera.
Lincoln Center Festival offers a marvelous window onto contemporary Chinese dance, theater and opera. Always on the look out for remarkable works from around the world, director Nigel Redden selected three very different productions. They not only entertain but also provide insight into what is going on culturally in a very fast-changing country. As the man who brought the lauded, 19-hour Peony Pavilion to Lincoln Center in 1999— the first complete performance of that version since the Ming Dynasty in China—he knows the territory well. “While incorporation of Western ideas and instruments into traditional works began some time ago,” he says, “it has only speeded up recently. Cross-pollination is going on in all the arts.”
Audiences will see for themselves. Beijing’s TAO Dance Theater’s choreographer Tao Ye brings an entirely contemporary aesthetic to the two works being presented on July 25 and 27 at Alice Tully Hall. Determined to find a new, non-typically Chinese movement language, he cofounded the company in 2008 with dancer Wang Hao, a specialist in Mongolian folk dance. In short time, he was dubbed the "enfant terrible" of Chinese dance. He earned the description for his exploration of form, content, physical interaction, and experiments with music and unlikely forms of movement, none of which is common in contemporary Chinese choreography.
In 2, he and dancer Duan Ni move to the sounds of their recorded conversations, creating mesmerizing patterns, both violent and gentle. The work represents an intimate relationship that slowly intensifies as the dance progresses, though the performers never touch or dance together. Tao Ye also choreographed a more physically expansive work for four women, titled 4. “Just seeing the technical proficiency of these dancers is inspiring,” Redden says. In each case, the choreographic focus on the individual and his or her world, without reference to tradition, would be unheard of in contemporary Chinese dance even ten years ago.
A similar focus on the individual can be found in Hand Stories, which will be performed at the Clark Studio Theater July 18–25. Basing the production on autobiographical material, fifth generation puppeteer Yeung Faï tells his life story after his father, a grand master of Chinese puppetry, died in prison during the Cultural Revolution. One of the oldest traditional Chinese folkloric arts, Chinese puppetry dates back to the Western Han dynasty (206 BC – 24 AD), so his father’s fate reverberated throughout the community. Working with recordings, a video design by Taiwanese media artist Yilan Yeh, and a score by Australian composer Colin Offord, he uses traditional hand puppets to relate how he managed to carry on the family legacy, and tells the poignant story with the French, clown-trained actor Yoann Pencole.
Yeung’s collaborations create a multi-dimensional experience for audiences as the action alternates between shapes eerily moving across a screen in the back of the stage to the platform where the puppets enact the drama. It then moves to the two men, who act as narrators, seated on the front of the stage. While sumptuously attired, the puppets spend as much time fighting as conversing, reflecting the tensions of the Cultural Revolution. “Here one sees an Eastern sensibility meeting a Western art form,” says Redden. “Yeung made a personal story larger by using contemporary techniques, without losing small, beautiful moments.”
Composer Guo Wenjing, whose opera YeYan/The Night Banquet was presented at Lincoln Center in 2002, returns with his chamber opera, Feng Yi Ting (The Phoenix Pavilion), a lyrical and dramatic blend of his heritage with the late 20th century avant-garde. It will be given three performances at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College July 26–28. The opera relates a traditional story from 25–220 AD of a beautiful woman who uses her charms to bring peace by seducing rival warlords, the aristocrat Dong Zhuo and his godson, General Lu Bu. In fact, the leading lady of this tale was considered one of the four most beautiful women to ever have lived in China. Feng Yi Ting refers to the pavilion on the household grounds where they have their rendez-vous.
But rather than keep solely to tradition, a range of artists were brought in to take the tale into the 21st century. They include Ensemble ACJW, a collective of young professional musicians from Carnegie Hall and Julliard’s The Academy; and a chamber ensemble consisting of four musicians on traditional Chinese instruments (pipa, dizi, erhu, gaohu and sheng). Innovative film director Atom Egoyan, whose resume includes directing Die Walküre and Salome for the Canadian Opera Company, as well as many notable films, turned the opera into a multimedia production. Hip, young fashion designer Han Feng, who won praise for the Metropolitan Opera’s Madama Butterfly designs in 2006 and the opera version of Amy Tan’s The Bonesetter’s Daughter for the San Francisco Opera in 2008, dresses the characters.
Talking about the production at Lincoln Center, Guo explains, “I use two soloists in traditional style rather than the Western bel canto. I think it makes for a more delicate collage, with multiple layers and exquisite complexity.” Egoyan and Han Feng couldn’t get over the creative potential of Feng Yi Ting. “It’s such amazing music,” Egoyan says, “and such a dramatic triangle. It was wonderful to be able to explore such an unusual woman, who was willing to take on these tyrannical men. The music was a challenge in terms of how she uses her vocal instrument – it’s so concentrated.”
Han Feng relished working on an opera that didn’t conform to those she knew from her childhood. “I could think of the heroine in more contemporary terms, without her fate already predetermined,” she says. It made a big difference in how she could envision her, and was especially gratifying to see the story expand and not follow a formula. She could be far more creative in the costuming. Egoyan adds, “The opera offered us limitless dramatic possibilities.”
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