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Thursday, February 07, 2008

Celebrating China's Cultural History

Now playing at NY's Radio City until Feb. 9. Look here for more.

January 30, 2008

New American: The Divine Performing Arts company is appropriately named; their glorious productions are heavenly creations of movement, music, color, and pageantry that captivate, excite, and inspire. For the past four years the Chinese performers have been taking their “Chinese New Year Spectacular” show on a world tour of dozens of major cities, playing to critical acclaim and sold-out performances. I have been fortunate to attend each of the annual productions in San Francisco since 2004, and it is easily my top pick each year as the cultural event of the year.

This year’s venue in San Francisco was the historic and ornate Orpheum Theater on Market Street. On the evening of January 25, the rain was pouring down, but it couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the nearly 3,500 fans that packed the theater for what was certain to be another extraordinary delight for the senses. We were not disappointed; if possible, the evening’s spectacle exceeded even the stellar performances of previous years.

Instead of the excellent recorded music used in earlier productions, the 2008 performance featured superb live music provided by the Divine Performing Arts Orchestra conducted by Rutang Chen, a celebrated cellist and former conductor of China’s Central Philharmonic Orchestra. The program also featured, interspersed between the dance numbers, impressive solo vocal performances by soprano Pi-Ju Hunag, tenor Hong Ming, and Baritone Qu Yue.

But it is the dancing which takes center stage and that has brought out the expectant patrons. Chinese classical dance, similar in many ways to western ballet, is an integral part of China’s five-millennia-old culture. The printed program for the event informs us that: “Performers aspire to achieve a melding of ‘form, spirit, strength, movement’ and attain a realm of ‘having both form and spirit, using body and mind, unifying internal and external.’”

The Divine Performing Arts dancers certainly succeed in that lofty endeavor with an exquisite display of fifteen dances representative of various periods of Chinese culture and various regions of that vast country. The numbers, ranging from the gentle fan dance entitled “Lightness and Grace” to the frolicking “Forsythia in Spring,” and the thunderous and exciting “Drummers of the Tang Court,” combine beautiful balletic technique with challenging acrobatic leaps and tumbling.

As always, the stunning gracefulness and strength of the individual dancers is immeasurably enhanced with precise and imaginative group choreography, sumptuous costuming and magnificent set designs and backdrops using traditional painting together with multi-media technology. The entire production is a beautiful blend of antiquity and modernity.

Interestingly, once again, the government of the People’s Republic of China tried to sabotage the performances in many cities. Why? After all, this lush, expensive production features many of China’s top dancers and musicians and is one of the premiere exhibitions exposing Westerners to classical Chinese culture. But as far as Communist Party officials in Beijing are concerned, the production is “subversive.” Not only would it be impossible to present it in China, but each and every performer would almost certainly be arrested and jailed — and possibly tortured and killed. Unfortunately, this is no exaggeration.

Many of the performers are practitioners of Falun Gong, the meditation and exercise system that is banned and brutally suppressed in China. New Tang Dynasty Television (NTDTV), the primary corporate sponsor of Divine Performing Arts’ programs, also includes many Falun Gong practitioners among its management and reportorial staff. This Falun Gong connection is sufficient to stir the persecution fervor of the Beijing commissars. In China, tens of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners have been imprisoned, many disappearing forever. There are many confirmed cases of Falun Gong practitioners being tortured to death in prison.

Additionally, in the eyes of Party officials the Divine Performing Arts members have committed the unpardonable sin: they have exposed the brutality of the Communist regime to the outside world. A couple of the numbers in the show depict Communists viciously attacking unarmed Falun Gong practitioners who are peacefully meditating. It’s no secret who the bad guys are, since each of the black-clad thugs has a large, red hammer and sickle emblazoned on his back. That seals it! Mao’s Chinese Reds, who perfected the “art” of heavy-handed propaganda theater, go absolutely apoplectic when their own weapons are turned on them.

Even if Divine Performing Arts had chosen to leave overt criticism of Communism out of the program, Beijing couldn’t allow them to perform unmolested. They cannot allow some of their most talented artists to leave and perform independently produced works that are outside of the dictatorial control of the government’s cultural police. Hence, they have attempted to intimidate venues into canceling their contracts with Divine Performing Arts and have contacted elected officials, warning that Falun Gong is “outlawed” in China and that attending the “Chinese New Year Spectacular” or “Holiday Wonders” shows, or even sending a greeting to the show, would have “bad effects” on their political and personal reputations. Officials in Canada, Europe, Australia, and Japan were subjected to similar intimidation tactics.

David Kilgour, Canada's former secretary of state for Asia and one of Canada's longest-serving recent members of parliament, strongly condemned the efforts to interfere with the performances. “No elected official or other person should pay any attention to such pressure from Chinese party-state officials,” he said. “During 27 years in Canada's parliament, I never encountered similar interference from any government except that of the one in Beijing,” noted Kilgour. “We have about 125 foreign missions in Ottawa. The rest all know the limits of acceptable diplomatic behavior.”

Fortunately, Beijing’s interference appears to have had little effect on attendance. This year’s program schedule included packed performances in Atlanta, Atlantic City, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Fort Lauderdale, Greensboro, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York City, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Diego, San Francisco, and St. Petersburg.

The “Chinese New Year Spectacular,” says NTDTV president Zhong Lee, “is a show case that centers on classical themes, divinely-inspired cultural traditions, and positive values such as freedom, peace and justice, in the styles of Chinese classical dance and music. We are committed to present the audience with programs of consummate beauty and goodness with the values and spirit of traditional culture. We hope our audience will gain deeper understandings about life while enjoying this thrilling artistic performance.”

New Tang Dynasty TV and Divine Performing Arts surely achieved that worthy goal. If you’re bone-weary of the offensive, obscene, absurd, and insipid offerings that are passed off as entertainment and culture these days, you owe it to yourself and posterity to indulge your inner aesthete in the refreshingly innocent beauty and artistic splendor which these outstanding artists bring to the stage. It is too late to catch any of this year’s live performances, but you can sample them online and mark your calendar to be sure you do not miss these marvelous events next year.

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