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Friday, January 25, 2008

A dazzling show with a clear message

by PAULA CITRON From Tuesday's Globe and Mail-January 22, 2008 at 4:59 AM EST

At the Sony Centre in Toronto on Sunday

The slick and polished Chinese New Year Spectacular, currently on tour to 60 cities around the world, features both a lot of dance and a good dollop of political statement.

The producing arm of the lavish show is New Tang Dynasty Television, a New York-based, non-profit satellite station founded by overseas Chinese in 2002. New Tang funds Divine Performing Arts, which has been mounting the annual New Year Spectacular since 2004. The pockets must be deep - for this New Year's season, New Tang has hired top PR firms in each city to target audiences outside the Chinese community. It was certainly a mixed crowd at Toronto's Sony Centre.

So where do the arts and politics intersect? The show contains 20 numbers, five musical and 15 dance. Of these 20, six show support of Falun Gong (Falun Dafa), which followers describe as a self-improvement meditation practice. The spiritual movement is outlawed in China, where, according to human-rights critics, Falun Gong practitioners have been jailed and tortured.

(New Tang has admitted that some Falun Gong practitioners work for the media company, but it denies an official association with the movement.)

Four songs in the show have lyrics that exhort the listener to be both better aware of tyranny and make a stand against oppression. The two dance dramas, The Risen Lotus Flower and The Power of Awareness, depict, respectively, three courageous young Falun Gong women being beaten in prison and a group of Falun Gong followers resisting the police in a park.

Needless to say, none of the battalion of choreographers and composers listed in the program currently lives in China. This is a show where the artistic team is all expatriates and the performers are ethnic Chinese born mostly in foreign climes. There are a considerable number of Canadian Chinese in the cast.

The show is certainly a spectacle. The production values are grand in terms of costumes and scenic effects, and the performers are all very good-looking and meticulously disciplined.

The choreography is based on traditional movement from classical Chinese dance, such as little running steps, angled bodies, knee raises, abrupt poses and showy gymnastics. The core of the style is how the 16 or so dancers are put in patterns to get the maximum beauty out of their stage picture.

There are folk dances from Tibet and Mongolia for both the female (graceful) and male (athletic) ensembles, a traditional fan dance and long-sleeve dance, drum dances, a Manchu court dance on tiny shoes and dance dramas. In the latter, an ambitious Confucian scholar receives enlightenment from a Taoist (A Vanished Dream), while two modern "gangsta" street youths (one in a Mohawk) are embraced by Buddhist reverence (The Fruits of Goodness).

Nymphs of the Sea, where each of the winsome young women holds a fan with a long train of blue silk, got the most enthusiastic audience reaction. When they wave the fans standing closely together, the material actually looks like a rippling waterfall.

The lush and tuneful original music is a fusion, layering a Western orchestra with traditional Chinese instruments. This show is performed to tape, but the banks of sound equipment are state-of-the-art, and the Sony Centre has never seemed so full and sweeping to the ear. The four opera singers are very accomplished, as is young pianist Yan Li.

An amiable duo, Leeshai Lemish and the glamorously gowned Mei Zhou, play host, introducing each number in both Chinese and English, and while their banter is contrived, it is also rather amusing. Yes, the show makes a political statement, but the audience certainly gets its money's worth in entertainment.

Chinese New Year Spectacular will tour to Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary in the spring.

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