Dance drama steps to beat of the market
Against a dying blood-red sun, a slim beauty in white silk dress slowly slips from the hero's powerful arms. Gleaming coldly, his long sword falls from her hand. Flying pink peach blossoms fill the air, falling on the lovers and covering the ground.
The curtain slowly falls to a stirring melody as the dance drama "Farewell My Concubine (Bawang Bieji)" ends. The striking scene gripped the hearts of viewers in Shanghai when it was staged during the Shanghai International Arts Festival last October.
This week, the Shanghai City Dance Company has brought its production "Farewell My Concubine" to Beijing, where it will be staged at the Poly Theatre from Tuesday to Friday.
The dance drama was choreographed by Zhao Ming and is performed by the Shanghai Oriental Youth Dance Group.
The work gets its inspiration from the heart-wrenching story of the rise and fall of a heroic general in ancient China.
At the end of the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC), the oppressed people rose to rebel against the evil emperor, the son of Qin Shihuang. The country broke into separate states, with several heroes emerging from the chaos to proclaim themselves king.
Among them, two great leaders contended for supremacy: Xiang Yu, the King of Chu, and Liu Bang, the King of Han.
In the final battle in 202 BC, Xiang Yu was besieged by Liu Bang. His troops ran out of food, and when they heard their native songs being sung by the enemy forces surrounding them, Xiang Yu was convinced that their homeland had been occupied and their countrymen had joined Liu Bang.
Xiang Yu drank with his beloved concubine Yu for the last time. She performed a sword dance for him. Then she cut her throat with his sword.
Grief-stricken, Xiang Yu fought his way to the Wujiang River and, when all his men had fallen, he took his own life.
The most famous rendering of the story is the Peking Opera version conceived and performed by Mei Lanfang (1894-1961), one of the most famous Peking opera singers.
The 1992 movie of the same title, directed by Chen Kaige and starring Leslie Cheung and Gong Li, took the story around the world.
Sun Mingzhang, chief executive of Shanghai City Dance Company, decided to turn the story into a dance drama and invited choreographer Zhao Ming to work on it early last year.
Zhao took up the task with pleasure because he was "touched by the love between Xiang Yu and his concubine Yu and was interested in "interpreting it in the language of dance."
The choreography is not classic ballet, nor is it contemporary dance or traditional Chinese dance; but, rather, Zhao says, a combination of all three styles, spiced with some breath-taking acrobatic fighting.
"Dance drama covers so much that I could not limit myself to any single dance genre. So it defies being classed simply as Western or Chinese, classic or modern," says Zhao.
"The overall impact of the show is calculated to overwhelm audiences. From music to setting, from costumes to lighting, everything merges together to guarantee a visual hit. It's hard to produce a dance show with the pizzazz of a Hollywood blockbuster, but we have tried to do just that," said Sun.
In the 90-minute show, elements of the heroic epic of battle and personal love are seamlessly intertwined. The different characters of the three leading figures are clearly defined: Xiang Yu wants to be a hero, not an emperor, so he gives up the throne for his love; Concubine Yu shows the loyalty of her love in her death; while Liu is so ambitious and obsessed with the desire to become emperor that he betrays the armistice agreement with his former partner Xiang Yu.
Zhao's choreography is a feast for the eye and the heart.
"I could not say it is my best dance drama, but I'm proud of it. I'm proud of many parts of the choreography. I believe that audiences will be impressed with the choreography and might even want to ask me where the inspiration came from."
The curtain opens on the battlefield where Xiang Yu and his troops have been besieged by the forces of Liu Bang. Only Concubine Yu and his beloved horse accompany him. The horse has several sword wounds. With Yu in his arms, despairing Xiang Xu recalls how the war started and how he met his beloved concubine.
The accompanying music is derived from the classical pipa solo piece, "Embattled on All Sides (Shimian Maifu)." The pipa is a plucked string instrument with a fretted fingerboard. Liu Dehai, renowned Chinese pipa master, plays the solo piece for the scene. And a group of imperial maids dance while playing pipa, in contrast to the cruel battle on the other side of the stage.
The first pas de deux of Xiang Yu and Concubine Yu when they just meet is romantic and beautiful while their last pas de deux when they are dying, is filled with passion.
In sharp contrast, the pas de deux of Xiang Yu and Liu Bang features a duel of wits and strength between the two heroes from Chinese history, especially in the scene with a Chinese chessboard as the background drop curtain.
Xiang and Liu play chess upon the huge chessboard - a metaphor for the struggle between the two contesting powers, while their soldiers are engaged in battle on the other side of the stage. Gradually a piece of dark red silk symbolizing blood drops over and covers the chessboard.
All 75 dancers are young, Zhao says. The three leading ones are not famous names in the Chinese dance world, but they nonetheless perfectly execute the three roles.
After the four shows in Beijing, "Farewell My Concubine" will start its world tour in Paris in July, as a part of the China France Culture Year. This will be followed by 161 shows in a dozen European countries and 30 shows in Japan and South Korea. Then the company will do 150 shows in North America.
The story of marketing
The successful marketing of "Farewell My Concubine," produced by a small local troupe with dancers "borrowed" from other ensembles, has surprised many people.
The insiders attribute the success to the 40-year-old Sun Mingzhang and his Shanghai City Dance Company, which is not a dance ensemble but a production company and agency specialized in dance.
"In China there are not many dance experts like Sun, who never received dance training," comments Zhao Ruheng, president of National Ballet of China.
"The establishment of Shanghai City Dance Company has been a revolutionary move in reforming China's traditional management system for performing arts ensembles," said Feng Shuangbai, director of the Dance Research Institute of the China Academy of the Arts. And choreographer Zhao Ming points out, "China's performing arts troupes have little sense of marketing and promotion."
Shanghai-born Sun fell in love with dance during his middle school years after he watched a ballet performed by Matsuyama Ballet from Japan.
Sun has never danced himself, but ever since that first encounter with dance, he has been fascinated by ballet and watched countless dance shows.
After graduating from Shanghai University of Finance, the international trade major worked in an investment bank.
However, it was not until 2000, when he attended a forum called "The Situation and Future of Chinese Ballet" held in Shanghai that he really got involved in dance.
"It was a two-day forum but the participants spent a day and a half complaining about the shortage of funds, a shrinking market, poor management of dance companies, and inroads on audiences threatened by other entertainment genres," he said.
He also learned that China's dance was being taken in the wrong direction. Almost all the ensembles were trying their best to produce shows that would net awards granted by the government. Some local ensembles would invest several million yuan and two or three years on a show that would be performed only two or three times for some specific competition.
China has wonderful choreographers, dancers and the lighting, sets and music are not so bad, Sun says. But there's no professional producers, in either promotion or sales.
"I am a businessman and a loyal ballet fan. I hold that artistic works are products, too," he says. "I deal with ballet as a product, which means before I hire the crew and cast, I evaluate the investment and possibilities of profit, analyze audience's tastes, decide on a target market, then raise funds and plan a promotion campaign. After the product is born, we promote it, sell it and then distribute the bonus."
In February 2003, Sun established the Shanghai City Dance Company in partnership with Shanghai Wenxin Group, the Western Group and the Peony Movie and TV Company Ltd.
Wenxin Group was put together by Wenhui Daily and Xinmin Evening News, Shanghai's two largest newspapers organizations, and they can provide much help in the promotion of productions; the Western Group has wide investment experience, while Peony is experienced in management.
Sun gathered the three together and all of them believe that dance should enter the market and that dance productions can be box-office hits.
"Farewell My Concubine" is Sun's first such "product."