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The unmasking of Nuo

By Chen Nan | China Daily | Updated: 2016-11-07 07:47

The unmasking of Nuo

Luo Huiwu (center), a performer of Nuo Opera from Jiangxi province, plays in the dance drama Nuo Emotion. ZOU HONG/CHINA DAILY

In a rehearsal room of Beijing Dance Academy, which is full of young dancers, Luo Huiwu draws all the attention.

Luo, 77, walks slowly toward the center of a stage and starts chanting. The dancers behind him bow their heads and he does as well.

The ritual, which Luo has practiced for the past 50 years, is part of the new dance drama Nuo Emotion.

It will be staged in Beijing on Monday.

The piece, which is being produced by the academy, combines contemporary dance moves with elements of Nuo-a popular folk opera in China's south and east.

Luo is from Shiyou, a village in Nanfeng county, Jiangxi province, where the Nanfeng Nuo Opera Troupe is based. He is the oldest performer in his troupe.

"In the beginning and at the end of a show, I sing the lyrics. They are prayers for good things, such as fortune, happiness and health. The singing is performed in an ancient Jiangxi dialect that doesn't have a written form," says Luo.

He started learning the opera in his early 20s.

"We also sing for the past Nuo performers, showing our gratitude to them for teaching us."

In the upcoming show, seven other members of his troupe will also perform.

Nuo was once widely performed in olden-day China when people wanted to pray for nature's mercy to stop disasters and the spread of diseases or for good harvests and longevity.

Originating in the 16th century as a form of totem worship, Nuo drew some references from Taoism later. Performers wear heavy costumes and thick masks that symbolize many gods.

Guo Lei, head of the Beijing Dance Academy, is directing the dance drama.

Also a native of Jiangxi, Guo grew up watching Nuo Opera.

"As a child I was scared of the masks. But as I grew older, it became fun to watch such performances," recalls Guo.

Many of the masks are made of wood.

In 2013, when Guo and the academy's dancers went to ArtsCross, a major annual intercultural project in London, they did a Nuo performance, which got good feedback from the audience.

"People kept on asking us what the masks are about and what the dances mean," says Guo. "Not just the audience, but also our young dancers-they are very curious about Nuo."

Many young Chinese don't know about this culture, mostly because it is dying today.

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