Soft Diplomacy: bravura “Opera Warriors” showcases Chinese performing arts

North American premiere for historic dance drama

All for one and one for all: trainees on their way to Peking Opera stardom.

About halfway through this five-act extravaganza there’s a tableau of a theatre audience: bejeweled matrons in brocade gowns, young flappers, dandies in pork-pie hats, strolling snack vendors, creaky mandarins in quilted robes. Just the sort of throng that might have greeted the house-counting eyes of a 1920’s Peking Opera actor onstage.

Except instead of gazing up at an opera platform in China, this meta-audience is itself onstage, peering out over a packed house in Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre: silk-sheathed socialites draped in furs, stolid Chinatown burghers, grandparents with pre-teens, Goh Ballet luminaries, swarming camera hobbyists with howitzer-sized telephotos. 

The Chinese government spent a lot of pre-devaluation RMB to buy this crowd. The advance publicity alone fattened the ad revenues of a whole gamut of local media (including – full disclosure – the VO) for a month before the show’s North American premiere last week. The promoters shipped container loads of props, costumes and scenery, as well as 40+ stars and choristers from the Shanxi Academy of Arts. To accommodate it all, the 3,000-seat QE Theatre, Vancover’s most lustrous venue, with its 70’ x 40’ stage, was “a bit tight for us,” the troupe’s artistic director, Wang Jinghua confides in a foyer interview. “But we made shift.”

China thinks big, when it comes to such spectacles. The “Opera Warriors” production team is packed with name-brand talent, veterans of far vaster projects than this. The script was penned by Hongkong celebrity writer Lillian Li, who wrote the blockbuster screenplay for “Farewell My Concubine.” Choreographer Xing Shimiao has mounted fully eight editions of Chinese Central TV’s Lunar New Year farrago. Lighting designer Sha Xiaolan illuminated the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics.

But the tradition of grandiose state-sponsored showmanship dates back much farther than that – as early as the salad days of the People’s Republic in the 1950’s. Before the Sino-Soviet split, the new Communist regime could import top-flight Russian ballet masters to train a corps of world-class Chinese dancers. Even after the break with Moscow, this home grown talent pool could be drawn on to perform (with technical mastery and aggressive global diffusion) Madame Mao Zedong’s two approved “Revolutionary Model” dance dramas, “The White-Haired Girl” and “The Red Detachment of Women.”

With the purge of Madame Mao and the ebb of Cultural Revolution zealotry, the Model Dramas fell into disrepute. But the ballet influence lingered on, blending with endemic folk and theatrical traditions for a hybridized “Chinese classical dance” genre, as espoused by the Shanxi Arts Academy. Of course this mode has nothing at all to do with the discredited Revolutionary Model style, Wang Jinghua hastens to add.

Nevertheless, Professor Liu Siyuan of the UBC theatre department concedes (in a phone interview) that there could be a certain family resemblance. Not a lineal descent, but a kind of second cousinship via a remote common ancestry in the Russian ballet. For instance Chinese classical dancers move more fluidly than the highly stylized Peking Opera actors, he notes. And their toes point down instead of up.

Nor does the kinship end there. Chinese classical dance seems to share with the Revolutionary Model genre a penchant for stark melodrama, with unambiguous good guys and bad guys. What’s changed, though, is the underlying notion of who’s good or bad. And, given the unstinting government promotion of such galas, these shifting  subtexts say a lot about Beijing’s evolving worldview, priorities and ideology.

It’s still safe to demonize exploitative fat cats. But instead of lionizing proletarian guerrillas, as in Cultural Revolution times, the latest dance dramas extol the disciplined, self-abnegating conservators of China’s glorious civilization and traditions – the very people who, not long ago, were hounded, often lethally, as “cow demons and snake spirits,” avatars of superstition and feudal oppression. 

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