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Friday, April 18, 2008

Chinese show lives up to name

The "Divine Performing Arts Chinese Spectacular" shares centuries-old culture through music, dance and costuming. A dance about plum blossoms conveys their important symbolism of courage, endurance and inner beauty in the Chinese culture.

By Katherine Nichols

For one night only, Oahu residents have the rare opportunity to experience a rich overview of Chinese culture teeming with elements now forbidden in the country of their origin.

Divine Performing Arts Chinese Spectacular

Place: Blaisdell Concert Hall

Time: 7:30 p.m. Monday

Tickets: $38, $58, $78 and $98

Call: 591-2211, or Blaisdell box office


Chinese Spectacular transcends entertainment. It's a two-and-a-half-hour lesson in Chinese history, a study of various dynasties over 5,000 years through traditional dance, music, costumes and digitally projected backdrops. On another level, it symbolizes a revival of cultural elements suppressed in communist China.

Honolulu was fortunate to get the 100 dancers and musicians in the Divine Performing Arts company to stop here at all. In fact, the show is wedged between appearances in Auckland and Seattle on a worldwide 60-city tour.

"I've seen many shows, and this is one of a kind," said Hong Jiang, spokesperson for the event and a professor of Chinese cultural geography at the University of Hawaii. Those expecting a circus performance, however, are missing the mark on this large-scale production. "People have a misconception of what a Chinese show is; the classical Chinese dance actually serves as a basis for acrobatics."

Hong said that several details make this show unique. First, of course, is the dance. While acrobatic components are included, the dance is decidedly "high culture," said Hong, like classical ballet, with its own unique tradition.

Orchestra music -- with the addition of Chinese instruments such as the gong and drums -- accompanies the dance, providing another impressive ingredient.

"The orchestra is a fine blend of East and West," said Hong. "It's not Western classical, but it's not foreign to any audience, basically. You don't feel any disharmony at all."

In addition, each new set dictates a costume change. The Tang Dynasty, for instance, represents the peak of Chinese cultural development, around 800 A.D., and ornate dressings accurately depict that era. "They have a team of people researching the clothes of different dynasties," said Hong.

Perhaps most fascinating is the way Chinese Spectacular integrates modern techniques to recreate authentic settings for each time period by digitally projecting the images on a screen behind the actors.

"You talk about all these different periods, and it would be difficult to have a stage set that reflected all of that," said Hong, who saw the show last year in Los Angeles and said it was "already pushing the envelope" in terms of technology. "It's so dynamic and realistic. You can't put a Ming Dynasty door on a Tang Dynasty building, so everything is also very precise."

Aside from what promises to be a highly engaging history lesson, the show touches on spiritual components and "traditional Chinese cultural values," said Hong. These include the loyalty, piety, benevolence, faithfulness and compassion associated with Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoist (or Taoist) traditions. Ethnic numbers portraying the music and dance of Mongolia, Tibet and Korea further broaden the scope of the presentation. And through it all, the performers celebrate the ability to present these ideas without the constraints of censorship, propaganda or politics.

"Many people are searching for traditional values," Hong said of people in China. "But there's still not a lot of freedom of expression that would allow that." Even so, she thinks people all over the world will be able to relate. "When you go deep into a culture, it's really about universal values. But you don't have to be steeped in Chinese culture to enjoy the show."

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