Dance Review: DONGPO: LIFE IN POEMS (International Tour)

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by Paola Bellu on March 17, 2024

in Dance,Theater-International,Theater-New York,Tours


Dongpo (Su Shi’s art name) is a beloved and revered Chinese poet, writer, politician, calligrapher, and painter who was born during the Song dynasty, in the year 1,037. His life and art have inspired great minds; among them is an artist of broad talents, Shen Wei, the award-winning Chinese-American director, choreographer, and painter.

True to his nature, Wei is the director, playwright (with Guo Changhong,) choreographer, set and costume designer, and visual effects art director of Dongpo: Life in Poems, an operatic dance production that — after a stop D.C.’s Kennedy Center — plays at Lincoln Center through Sunday as part of an international tour. He picked fragments of Dongpo’s poems that relate to all people’s lives, depicting different themes (family, life journey, feelings, dreams, questions, etc.,) and gave each theme a natural environment using a palette of pastel colors to suit the production’s oneiric aspect. Shapes, lights, costumes, set pieces and large backdrops are all fused together to create the perfect frame for the dancers’ movements and the ingenious music score.

Wei divided the performance into six acts and from the beginning we are faced with a new melding of styles; while imagery is mainly dedicated to traditional Chinese culture (aside from costumes that at times border haute couture), the choreography is innovative, flawlessly going from ballet to tai-chi to modern and contemporary dance. All in symbiosis with the score; the two work as one, the physicality merges with the music, every slight movement, every pose is exquisitely accented. The use of a guqin, a 3,000 years old instrument that represents China’s musical tradition, played by Zhao Xiaoxia, added to the hypnotic theme and made the piece uniquely musical.

The dancers (from the China Oriental Performing Arts Group and Meishan Song and Dance Theatre) were spectacular. There was a constant elastic motion throughout the performance, continuous even movements that are usually impossible to coordinate, especially for 24 dancers, but the ensemble’s precision made the miracle happen; they moved in perfect harmony. Sometimes, their bodies were pushed off center to accommodate the aesthetics of the piece, yet even these unnatural poses looked natural within the context. We felt the energy racing through their bodies during the faster parts, when stylized patterns repeated in increasingly complex layers; seconds later, over a smooth transition, we were captured by the fluid swirls and pirouettes of a delicate pas de deux, drawn to a totally different emotion. “In a land presenting its beauty with grace / Heroes emerge in time’s transient embrace.”

As with the guqin, calligraphy and seal engravings by Yang Tao were an exquisite addition to the traditional journey. The creative team includes the Chinese-French composer Chen Qigang, the music director of the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games, and Xiao Lihe, the lighting designer of the same ceremony. Wei’s immense creativity and talent, paired with a performance that was intensely danced and acted by its ensemble, make Dongpo: Life in Poems a must-see.

Dancers: Su Peng, Liu Jie, Zeng Huanxing, Sheng Haozhe, Zuo Siyuan, Sun Peng, Xiao Qixin, Yang Han, Meng Yuchen, Dilizhati·Aini, Han Junting, Sui Xiaolong, Lin Jingru, Aerman·Ainiwaer, Wang Danfeng, Han Yutong, Shu Pengtao, Wang Shuxi, Han Xu, Wang Jiahao, Li Airong, Wang Bo, Yu Xiaoting, and Teng Yu.

images courtesy of China Arts and Entertainment Group

Dongopo: Life in Poems
international tour
China Arts and Entertainment Group & Meishan Song and Dance Theatre
co-presented by American Dance Festival
reviewed at The David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center
ends on March 17, 2024; for tickets ($39 to $169), click here

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