Dream of the Past: Ancient Chinese Court Dances

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Feb 26-Feb 28

Ambrose Li talks with director Zheng Lu to discover how ancient Chinese court dances are represented in Dream of the Past

Ever wondered how those ravishing dances in recent historical epics came about? Many, including the likes of Zhang Ziyi’s famous drum dance in House of Flying Daggers, were choreographed by Zheng Lu. A multiple-award winning dancer and a member of the Beijing Dance Academy, Zheng is directing Dream of the Past: Ancient Chinese Court Dances, the latest collaboration between the BDA and Hong Kong Dance Company.

Dream of the Past originally premiered in Beijing in the 1980s. Consisting of 11 different dances performed by ensembles of various sizes, it showcases the development of Chinese aesthetics throughout history. Alongside court dances, the work involves social, religious and military dances inspired by the cultures of the different dynasties from which they are taken. “Throughout three decades of the work’s performances, revisions and sublimations, it has established itself among the signature repertoires of the academy,” says Zheng with much pride. 

An extensive amount of multi-disciplinary research in classical Chinese dance supports Dream of the Past and adds to its importance. The research is headed by the BDA’s esteemed Professor of classical dance Sun Ying and encompasses archaeology, philosophy, art history (from sculptures to murals to ink paintings), the history of musical development, the socio-political circumstances of various dynasties and any other relevant historical data. The importance of these studies is that they do not aim simply to preserve this aspect of traditional Chinese culture but grant these dances a hint of contemporary ambience and keep them alive for modern audiences.   

“It would prove to be an incredibly difficult task to categorise Chinese art into various strands,” remarks Zheng, highlighting an interesting feature of Chinese art that explains why a contemporary reinterpretation of classical dance is necessary. “Like other Chinese art forms, such as poetry, paintings and music, dance has never existed as a standalone genre.” These forms are all intertwined throughout history, with the result somewhat akin to the Western concept of ‘gesamtkunstwerk’ (total art work). Therefore, as Zheng elaborates: “When designing this work, some reinvention is required to make this work convincing as a performance [piece] for modern audiences while remaining faithful to its origins. A faithful restoration of the past may not be appealing to modern audiences. We explore what has been passed down with utmost respect and recreate dances under this framework. We believe such is the way to preserve and keep traditions living,” emphasizes Zheng.  The result is choreography that displays the quintessential Chinese aesthetics, and, says Zheng, demonstrates the essence of Chinese culture.  

Dream of the Past is much more than just a sumptuous spectacle for the audience, it also reflects fascinating aspects of Chinese culture. A fine example is the ‘Chu-styled waist dancing’, which displays the taste and belief of Chu, one of the many warring states that existed for nearly 800 years before its collapse in 223BC. Zheng recounts the morbid legend of King Ling of Chu: “He had a thing for slim waists, so much so that many were starved to death at his palace in order not to fall out of favour,” and this particular preference is accentuated in the bold movements of the wild choreography in this part of the show. The same dance also demonstrates how, at one time, witches and dancers served the same purpose. “Only the most beautiful girls, who also had to be graceful dancers, were chosen to perform to worship and please the deities,” Zheng points out. “It’s believed that at those times, kings used these dances as offerings to pray for the state, such as for good weather to allow for a bounteous harvest.” This superstition of the time is reflected in the feathered headdresses of the costumes, since totems of birds held a unique position in Chu worship. Zheng explains, “Chu people thought birds had the ability to communicate with the deities in the heavens,and hence cultivated deep reverence for birds, which explains the use of feathers in their costumes for offering dances.”

The past is a foreign country, but to see how they did things differently you can’t do any better this fortnight than to marvel at this splendid production and its modern presentation of a very ancient art form.

Dream of the Past Feb 26-28, Kwai Tsing Theatre Auditorium, 12 Hing Ning Rd, Kwai Chung. Tickets: $80-$240; urbtix.hk.


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