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Panda tracks lead to discovery of Chinese history

By Chen Nan | China Daily Europe | Updated: 2017-03-26 11:05

Two dancers take on role of explorers as they navigate an interactive set for children

In the story being told in a dramatization by Italian visual theater group TPO, two explorers follow the footprints of a panda and find themselves venturing into the culture and history of China.

The show, Panda's Home, which premiered in Prato, Italy, in September 2016, will be staged in Beijing until April 2. In January and February this year, the show was staged in France and Sweden.

It has also been booked by the New Victory Theater in New York for June 2018.

 Panda tracks lead to discovery of Chinese history

Two Italian dancers, Luca Tomao and Martina Gregori, are giving an interactive performance in Beijing. Photos Provided to China Daily

"The work was appreciated because of the devices we used in the show: dance, pictures, sound and, obviously, our interactive and immersive theatrical environment," says Francesco Gandi, artistic director of TPO, an award-winning theater company founded for children in 1981. "But for us the true premiere will be the one that we will present in Beijing. We look forward to confronting a Chinese audience."

The troupe is devoted to creating works that are highly visual and multidisciplinary, using music, dance, art, sculpture, digital media and sound.

Gandi, along with Davide Venturini, the co-director of Panda's Home, became the artistic directors of TPO in 1999.

Interactive set

The show leads audiences on a sensory journey.

With two dancers, Luca Tomao and Martina Gregori - and Massimiliano Fierli and Francesco Taddei as engineers - children are continuously encouraged to participate and play with TPO's interactive set.

"From a panda's point of view, we interpret this story using dance and visual effects. Through the journey, they encounter how the elements of nature are related to each other according to a circular movement," says Gandi, referring to five elements, where each element is transformed and generates the next - wood, fire, earth, metal and water.

Like the two Italian explorers in the show, Gandi and his team also learned a lot about China through the process of producing it.

Their Chinese partner, Ren Lizhu - and Ren's company, TONG - brought TPO to China for the first time in 2015 with a show entitled The Painted Garden.

According to Ren, TPO's works involve lots of interaction with children, so the performances are suitable for smaller venues with a capacity of around 80 to 150, or 30 to 50 families.

"The Painted Garden was staged for three weeks in Beijing with 28 shows. To our surprise, all the shows were sold out, which gave us confidence about doing more immersive theatrical productions," Ren says.

Ren also says that after each presentation of The Painted Garden, the audience was invited to participate in a workshop in which children were asked to paint what they saw in the show.

"The workshop mirrored the children's creativity. Some of them drew the big ocean they saw onstage, while some drew the two dancers in the show with detailed portrayals, such as their curly, long hair. One of the children even painted the spotlight over his head."

For Panda's Home, workshops will be held after each performance.

Dance challenge

It was Ren who proposed the idea of producing a show based on traditional Chinese culture to Gandi.

Explaining her idea, Ren, who is the mother of a 4-year-old boy, says: "Most Chinese parents teach their children English and Western instruments, such as the violin and piano. However, Chinese culture is often ignored. We take it for granted that we know it because we are Chinese. But it is not true. Chinese culture is profound and has a long history, which deserves to be valued more."

A Beijing native, Ren, 36, graduated with a master's degree in marketing from the University of Leicester, and founded TONG in early 2015. The word means "children" in Chinese.

It also stands for "To Our Next Generation", and is devoted to importing and producing children's theater.

Gandi did not reply to Ren's proposal for three months because he spent that time researching and learning about Chinese culture. Then, when Ren flew to Italy to visit Gandi at TPO's headquarters in October 2016, she was surprised to see that Gandi's studio was filled with books and pictures about China.

As a partner on the Panda's Home production, Ren then helped develop the script.

Speaking about the project, Gandi, who brought another show, titled Kindur, to Beijing in 2016, says: "We then saw how interesting it would be to do a work as a tribute to Chinese culture. So, we started to think of how we could do a project for the young and at the same time do interactive dance theater."

For TPO, the main task with Panda's Home is to fill the gap between the young audience, the contemporary world and Chinese traditions.

"The choreography was a challenge because we belong to another culture. But Ren helped us a lot. Finally, we found a good balance," Gandi says.

"Potentially, China represents an incredible resource for European artists, especially those who are able to share their experiences and practices."

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