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Dancing through a classical painting

Xinhua | Updated: 2024-01-11 07:57
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Meng Qingyang (center standing) leads The Poetic Dance: The Journey of a Legendary Landscape Painting during its debut in Hong Kong on Friday. [Photo/Xinhua]

As a group of dancers wearing turquoise costumes and towering hair buns moved to a traditional Chinese melody, they appeared as if they had just stepped out of an ancient scroll painting of a Chinese landscape.

The Poetic Dance: The Journey of a Legendary Landscape Painting, a dance drama presented by Beijing-based China Oriental Performing Arts Group, made its debut in Hong Kong on Friday, igniting the enthusiasm of dance drama fans.

It tells a story closely related to A Panorama of Mountains and Rivers housed in the Palace Museum in Beijing. The masterpiece of traditional Chinese landscape painting is characterized by its use of blue and green. It has a history of nearly 1,000 years and is said to have been painted by the 18-year-old genius Wang Ximeng during the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

The drama is set at a time when the painting was to be exhibited upon Wang's finishing strokes.

By fully devoting himself to the study of the painting, a museum researcher steps into Wang's inner world, accompanying him during those precious moments when the young painter was making his greatest efforts. Through this experiential journey, the researcher explores the combination of chance and necessity that led to the unique emergence of the painting, interpreting the sentimental bonds between national cultural relics of the past and people in modern times.

As the dance drama is poised to embark on its global tour this year, choreographers Zhou Liya and Han Zhen say that the success of its performances in Hong Kong has instilled a powerful sense of confidence in their journey of sharing the richness of Chinese culture with audiences worldwide.

"Having watched the drama, I can only say that words fall short in describing its beauty," Hong Kong resident Chiu Laan said with excitement after the drama's debut on Friday night.

Chiu said she was mesmerized by the performance ever since the dance drama appeared in 2022 at China Central Television's Spring Festival Gala, a popular annual TV show in China to celebrate the most important festival of family reunions for the Chinese.

For three consecutive days, the Hong Kong Cultural Center was bustling with enthusiasts of the dance drama, much like Chiu. Some were dressed in traditional Chinese attire, while others even traveled by airplane to Hong Kong just for the show.

"In Hong Kong, it is not common to see a dance drama become so popular," says Ngai Suk-yee, chief manager of the cultural presentations section at the Leisure and Cultural Services Department of the Hong Kong special administrative region.

"As confident as we are in the dance drama, the overwhelming response (of fans) is far beyond our expectations," Ngai says, adding that in the initial round of ticket sales, over 4,000 tickets for the three performances were sold out within a few hours. Two additional shows were added, and tickets were also quickly snatched up.

"With the widespread acclaim, anticipation for this performance has been mounting among people in Hong Kong," Ngai says.

The immense popularity of the dance drama in Hong Kong has taken Zhou and Han by surprise.

"Through this performance, we hope that young friends would be inspired to visit the Palace Museum in Beijing and discover the source of inspiration for this dance drama in person, the painting A Panorama of Rivers and Mountains," Han said on Friday afternoon.

For Han, performing in Hong Kong is a milestone for the dance drama as it is also the debut of its brand-new version.

The production team discovered during their earlier research that stages in Hong Kong, like most of those worldwide, tended to be smaller compared to those in the mainland.

So, the production team decided to make proportional reductions in set design and props while ensuring the content of the script remained unchanged.

The dance artists are also prompted to adapt to the changes. Just hours before the premiere in Hong Kong, the entire acting team was still in rehearsals.

"We have to adjust the amplitude of our movements and get familiar with the new stage as soon as possible," says Meng Qingyang, the lead actress in the dance drama.

Their efforts paid off on Friday evening. As the curtain came down on the stage, the theater erupted in thunderous applause and jubilant cheers.

With the triumph in Hong Kong as a starting point, the whole team is looking forward to sharing this artistic beauty with the global audience, Han says.

Since its premiere at the National Grand Theater in Beijing in 2021, the dance drama has toured 50 cities across China with nearly 400 shows.

"The most important reason why the dance drama became so popular is that maybe it has awakened the audience's identification with traditional Chinese culture at a certain moment," Han says.

Over the past year, Hong Kong has witnessed a remarkable surge in the popularity of traditional Chinese cultural performances, with the special exhibition of the Hong Kong Palace Museum showcasing new archaeological discoveries at the Sanxingdui Ruins site in Sichuan province and the Tan Dun WE-Festival immersing audiences in vibrant ethnic culture.

"The common reason for the popularity of these works is their use of modern techniques to interpret traditional culture," Ngai says, adding that this approach has effectively bridged the gap between audiences, especially the younger generation, and traditional culture.

Ngai says that Hong Kong is developing as an East-meets-West center for international cultural exchange, and performing arts groups from the mainland seeking to go overseas often prefer to come to Hong Kong first, while foreign groups wishing to enter the mainland also often choose to start their performance tours here.

"Hong Kong serves as a gateway for both inbound and outbound cultural exchanges," says Ngai.

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