Yang Liping's new dance drama draws inspiration from the natural beauty and local culture of Pingtan, Chen Nan reports.
At first two men are seen beating large drums on a stage. A group of female performers in heavy costumes and makeup then walk in, singing Hakka folk songs in pitches much higher than those of sopranos in Western bel canto.
Next, more men, wearing black wooden masks decorated with red feathers, enter the arena and dance in praise of the ocean gods.
The scene is from a rehearsal of dancer-choreographer Yang Liping's new work, Pingtan Impression, which draws inspiration from Pingtan, located in East China's FUJIAN province and the closest place on the Chinese mainland to Taiwan.
The dance drama will debut in October, with an Asian tour of more than 200 shows.
It is likely to become a regular show in Pingtan from 2019, with a new theater to be built for it.
"Everything in Pingtan is so fresh. Its beautiful natural scenery and the local culture have been well preserved," says Yang, 59.
She visited the county of more than 100 islands for the first time in October.
Yang, a practitioner of Chinese folk dance, is from the Bai ethnic group of Southwest China's Yunnan province. Her waist-long hair and head accessories add to her exotic image.
Wang Yanwu, Yang's longtime partner, who also manages her company, Yang Liping Arts and Culture Co Ltd, says Pingtan Impression will be a visual spectacle with dancers trying to capture different elements of nature such as the ocean, sand and rocks in their movements. The work will also show deep cross-Straits connections.
Chinese folk songs sung in the Fujian dialect, ritualistic chanting and the recorded sounds of waves, for example, will provide the background track for the show.
"I wanted to display the most primitive sounds, colors and even smells of the place," says Yang, who has invited folk singers and dancers from Pingtan to join in the show.
Nature and the folk arts have influenced Yang's career.
Growing up in the mountainous areas of the Dali Bai autonomous prefecture, Yang, the eldest child in her family, learned to take care of the family from a young age and helped her parents with farming and herding animals.
Her grandmother once told her that dancing was a way to communicate with the gods.
Though she never had professional dance training, Yang joined the Yunnan Xishuangbanna Song and Dance Troupe in 1979.
The same year, she won a top provincial award as the lead dancer for Peacock Princess, a dance drama by the troupe.
The next year, at age 22, she joined Beijing-based China Central Ethnic Song and Dance Ensemble.
Yang won national recognition for Spirit of Peacock, a work that she both choreographed and performed in 1986.
In 2003, she left the ethnic ensemble and started out as an independent artist. Yang then directed Dynamic Yunnan, a dance drama that became a sensation.
She traveled throughout the province to seek inspiration and ended up collecting not just repertoires of folk dances and songs but also bringing back talented folk artists, all of whom appeared in it.
Dynamic Yunnan has been staged over 3,000 times worldwide and is now performed as a tourist attraction in Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan.
In 2007, she launched another successful show, Riddle of Tibet, which won acclaim for its interpretation of Tibetan culture and Buddhism. The show is now a major tourist draw in Sichuan province's Jiuzhaigou Valley, where it is regularly staged.
"Usually we tour our new productions first and then base them in specific cities," Wang says. "That way we can help to promote local tourism."
Besides delivering messages through new shows, Yang also considers introducing young artists to be an important goal of her company.
Xia Ga, a dancer from the Hani ethnic group, received a lot of attention when he performed the drum dance at Yang's shows, including Dynamic Yunnan. Yang discovered him during a trip of Yunnan's Jianshui county in 2001.
In 2012, Yang performed along with fellow dancer Wang Di in the show Love of Peacock as part of the CCTV Spring Festival Gala, among China's most popular TV programs. The audience was impressed by the young man's solid techniques.
Cai Qi, Yang's niece, turns 18 this year and will perform in Pingtan Impression. She is widely considered as an heir of her aunt's legacy. The young woman has been performing with Yang since her childhood.
"These dancers from different ethnic groups have been performing with me for years," Yang says.
"Many of them lacked formal training but always had a good sense of rhythm, which is a natural talent."
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The dance drama Pingtan Impression is a visual spectacle to reveal the charm of nature. Photos By Zou Hong / China Daily
Dancer-choreographer Yang Liping works on the rehearsal of her latest work, Pingtan Impression.
A performance at the launch ceremony of dance drama Pingtan Impression.[Photo by Wang Weixiao and Wang Yi/Xinhua]