In the 1930s, a young woman from Cedar City, Utah, US made her way to China, where she witnessed the birth of New China and recorded the history of the modern Chinese revolution.
She then worked continuously for over half a century to build bridges of understanding and friendship between the Chinese and American people. This great woman was Helen Foster Snow, famed American writer and journalist, the author of Inside Red China, the companion book to Edgar Snow's, Red Star over China.
Nearly a century has passed since her time in China, but she has not been forgotten. Her books have been translated and published, and her life and works have been studied in depth by scholars in China and the United States.
Though she died in 1997, she is still well-remembered by the Chinese in various ways, not the least of which is a new dance drama, The Dream of Helen, to be performed in Wuhan in July.
The Dream of Helen will demonstrate Helen Snow's glamour and spirit to the Chinese audience and become another historical witness to the Chinese-American friendship.
Why is this America woman so attractive to both Chinese and Americans? How was her story turned into a dance drama for the stage? How did Chinese and American artists cooperate on this dance drama? These questions are arousing attention with the approach of the performance dates, July 23, 24 and 25.
The story of this project began with a trip to the US by Mei Changshen in April of last year. Mei, president of the Hubei Song & Dance Troupe, was a childhood friend of Sun Xun who is now an associate professor of music of Southern Utah University and conductor of SUU Orchestra.
When he visited Sun Xun at SUU, Mei saw a full-size statue of Helen Foster Snow in the city park, and learned this heroine was from Cedar City. He initiated the idea of creating a dance drama about her story. His proposal was immediately supported by Sun Xun and accepted by Shauna Mendini, Dean of the Performing and Visual Arts College. They named this drama "The Dream of Helen."
Sun said The Dream combines modern dance with traditional Chinese dance, and follows Snow's life from her childhood in Cedar City to her years in China.
In May, Mendini and Kay Andersen, associate professor of dance, who is helping with choreography, traveled to China to research the feasibility and logistics of SUU students and faculty collaborating with Chinese artists on the project. "It was a wonderful first step as we got to know each other and meet each other for the first time," Andersen said.
The plan became a cross-campus project, and many SUU departments were involved in its planning and execution from the library staff helping to research information about Helen Foster Snow to the administrators supporting the project.
The Theatre Arts & Dance Department helped with set design and costuming; the global engagement center coordinated student travel; the dance department helped with choreography and the music department worked on composing the score for the performance.
Mendini said the school's adminis embraced the project as part of its global awareness philosophy. "It's not enough that our students merely experience superficially a global experience, but it has to impact and change lives," she said.
After a short time, Fu Zhiqiang, the stage designer for the Hubei Theatre, as well as Zhou Rong, the costume designer for the project visited SUU. This was their first visit to America. They said they loved the nice weather, the small town of Cedar City and hospitable friends. Their main goal was to work with the dancers by recording measurements for costumes, as well as touring the region to get an idea for set design.
"(Kolob) Canyon was very impressive and beautiful, even more impressive than the thought of the mountains or the pictures I had seen," Fu said.
"I want to reflect the beautiful views and scenery of southern Utah onto the stage. Helen’s life was involved with many time periods, but southern Utah and her hometown are definitely a very important part of this production." Fu also said that he is combining the Native American dream catcher to represent the southern Utah region with the traditional Chinese knot to represent the Chinese culture into the set design.
Zhou said she is excited for the chance to design American costumes. Every costume will be brand new, made specifically for the production. "First, I want to make sure that they look very beautiful and reflect the time period, second of all each costume has to be easy to dance in," Zhou said.
Sun was their host and translator during the visit. "They made note of every detail of the dancers and took many pictures, because they will not be seeing them again until the dancers arrive in Hubei in May," Sun said. SUU’s 14 dancers will be combined with a cast of 80 additional Chinese cast members; this is a small group compared to thousands of cast members Zhou has worked with in previous productions at the theatre. "The company thinks this is a very magnificent and important production because it reflects the friendship between the United States and China," said Zhou.
Heidi Powell, a sophomore dance education major from St. George performing in the dance drama, said the dancing is a different style of movement than those she has performed before. "The movement is so beautiful, and different than things we normally do," Powell said. She felt honored to be performing a dance that symbolized American culture for others, and learning Chinese dance forms. "The arts is what we can all share, it shares who we are, it’s a way of connecting the world together," Andersen said.
Wuhan, China will be home for 14 SUU dance students in May during an eight-week rehearsal process. In July they will be followed by six SUU student musicians who will perform with the Hubei Symphony Orchestra.
Sun said working with a professional dance company would be a challenging but rewarding experience for students. The world, in which we had strong borders, is diminishing. Technology has really made the world smaller. This global engagement was an important way to build bridges to help students understand the interrelated nature of the world, and give them a way to understand systems of meaning and cultures outside and of their own context and upbringing.
According to Mendini, the experience is exciting not only for the university, but more importantly, for the students getting to work with the Chinese artists one-on-one. "This could be a springboard for so many additional opportunities for students with regards to Global Engagement," she said. "It becomes a dream state, where we don’t have to work on a linear time line that can many times put us into political tension. We want to work from a perspective of creating time and space. The dance drama will share cultures symbolized onstage by a Native American dream catcher and a Chinese Knot. Those are two symbols of folklore between two cultures of East and West ... this is the whole focus behind the idea of the stage space. The performance is a way that people connect and share common values."
SUU’s Music Department Chair, Keith Bradshaw, is co-composing the score for the dance drama with composers in China. Communication is a challenge because each of them speaks little of the others’ language, so they each have someone to interpret e-mails. He said because it was hard to share ideas so far apart, he went to China in December to work in person on the project. He feels Helen Foster Snow’s story is one worthy of artistic expression. "I don’t know that she started out as an extraordinary person," Bradshaw said. "But I think it goes to show a difference that one person can make who is willing to sacrifice and put their whole heart and soul into something." The overall message of the dance drama was one of collaboration and building a positive relationship between the two nations. It is important to share that message and hopes that people will understand the deeper meaning behind the production. "As artists, that’s kind of our lot in life: to do what we love and hope someone else loves it too," Bradshaw said.
As part of the Helen Foster Snow theme, Bradshaw will be performing his original composition, "Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra: a Tribute to Helen Foster Snow," with the Hubei Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sun in China in early July.
SUU Provost Brad Cook and self-described "cheerleader" for The Dream of Helen project said it was a "rich opportunity" for students and faculty to build relationships, and he hopes to see more faculty exchanges and more Chinese students attending SUU as a result. To be a part of the project in which the Hubei Opera has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars, is a great compliment for SUU.
"The Dream of Helen" honoring Helen Foster Snow will be a bridge that extends beyond political tensions, borders, cultures - even time itself- to share a universal message of collaboion through music and dance. The dance drama, a cooperative project between Chinese artists and SUU faculty, staff and students, will be performed on July 23, 24 and 25 at Qintai Grand Theatre, Wuhan, China.