China Gansu Dance Theater Presents Historic Grandeur in New York Premiere
By Ellis Nassour
The grandeur of China comes alive in celebration of the Chinese New Year in living tableaus of music and extraordinary traditional dance, folk dances, ballet, and extreme acrobatics in the first visit to New York of the acclaimed China Gansu Dance Theater. The premiere of their spectacular dance drama Silk Road opened last night [February 27] at Lincoln Center’s Koch Theatre. Playing through Sunday, it showcases China’s historical association with what is known as the Silk Road trade route through artful choreography and dazzling costumes.
Speaking of the latter, let’s just say that all that glitters is not just silk. From all the gold seen onstage in magnificent headpieces and embroidered into the elaborate outfits, you might think there’s a shortage back home.
The amazingly youthful company of 60 dancers, who are nothing short of astonishing, is headlined by world dance competition winners. Storytelling in dance pantomime, especially in an epic such as this, isn’t easy; but once you are past the exquisite costumes and pageantry of the pre-prelude set against the giant Buddha of China’s Sanwei Mountain, it’s easy to follow [there’s a synopsis in the Playbill] .
The story tells of friendships forged along the route during the Tang Dynasty with merchants from many nations. Silk Road focuses on the story, told in eight acts [vignette sketches], of the trials and tribulations of a master fresco painter, portrayed by An Ning; his beautiful daughter, danced by breathtakingly beautiful and agile Chen Chen; and a Persian merchant, the dynamically athletic Huang Deshuang, whom they befriend in the great desert after he’s robbed and beaten,.
The trio is attacked by bandits, and the daughter’s kidnapped. She becomes a "geisha" and the lead dancer in a troupe performing at the Dunhuang Imperial Market. Years later, and, amazingly on the same day, she’s discovered by and reunited with her father and the young Persian who’s never stopped searching for her and who offers a huge ransom to have her released from bondage.
One of the highlights of Silk Road is the deliberately over-the-top [some might say hammy] curtain call. In fact, curtain calls [there were at least 10]. The applause was so deatening that the lead dancers leaped off stage onto the covered orchestra pit. There were immensely personal moments and the dancers were extremely moved by the adulation – even throwing the bouquets of flowers they’d been presented into the audience. They returned the ovation with some of their most daring dance moves. Dance company artistic directors everywhere would be wise to take note.
The purpose of the visual design on gigantic backdrops is to transform the stage into a world of wonder and enchantment. They do their job, but are no match for the stunning array of costumes designed in what had to be a massive undertaking by international artist Xu Ming; nor the dancers’ athleticism, especially notable in large synchronized routines.
The design is reality-based, inspired by the magnificent frescoes found in the massive complex of caves in Dunhuang, a city renowned for its natural beauty and historic role along the Silk Road. The frescoes have survived 1,600 years of sandstorms, wars, erosion, and man-made destruction from Mae Zedong’s culture wars.
The pre-recorded music score has been adapted and orchestrated by Du Ming, and recorded by Gansu’s orchestra. The lush tracks accompanying Act IV following intermission and Finale are quite listenable and could stand alone on a CD.
Lu Jinlong is China Gansu artistic director. Shen Chen and Xu Chenghua are lead choreographers and directors. Since its China premiere in 1979, Silk Road has played more than 200 cities in 20 countries. It’s estimated to have been seen by more than four million. The New York engagement is presented by the China Arts & Entertainment Group Theater and the People’s Republic of China Ministry of Culture.
Some seats are available for remaining performances on Friday at 8 P.M., Saturday at 8 P.M., and Sunday at 1 P.M. Tickets for Silk Road are $23 – $98 with premium orchestra seating available. Purchase at the Koch Theatre box office, online at www.davidhkochtheater.com/, or by calling (212) 496-0600.]
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