The hollow beauty of Chinese new model dance dramas

Last September, one of the most popular touring shows in recent memory, “An Expanse of Green”, arrived in the eastern city of Yangzhou. The show, which features a mix of dance and poetry based on the Northern Song Dynasty painting “A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains,” premiered in Beijing last year to huge commercial success, only to seeing his tour schedule derailed for several months due to China’s strict COVID-19 prevention measures.

The break, however, did little to dampen the enthusiasm of the public. Ground-floor seats for the Yangzhou stop cost around 980 yuan ($136), while mine, on a fourth-floor balcony so far away I could barely see the scenery, cost 580 yuan. The other stops of the show had sold out almost immediately, and spectators across China who had missed out were more than happy to buy tickets for the delayed Yangzhou show – travel costs and the ever-present risk of lockdown of COVID-19 be damned.

Like the equally popular 2019 drama “The Eternal Wave” – an adaptation of the 1958 war film of the same name – the buzz for “An Expanse of Green”, with its anthems to traditional Chinese culture, has enjoyed enthusiastic support. of the government. A scene from the show was included in China Central Television’s 2022 Spring Festival gala program block, and the production won the Wenhua Grand Prize at the China Culture and Arts Government Awards in September.

A GIF shows “An Expanse of Green” on stage in Xiong’an, September 6, 2022. From @河北省文化和旅游厅 on Weibo

But the popularity of “An Expanse of Green” and “The Eternal Wave” isn’t just a product of government support. The skillfully produced shows, which are part of a genre known in Chinese as wujuor “dance dramas”, won over not only theater fans, but also the general public who might never have set foot in a theater before.

Their ability to do so speaks less to storylines or strong performances than to ordinary Chinese people’s growing appetite for traditional culture and aesthetics. Take “The Eternal Wave,” for example. The drama, like the film it is based on, primarily chronicles the activity of Communist spies in the late 1930s and 1940s. But the stage adaptation’s most famous scene is nowhere to be found in the film more rigorously. ideological. Halfway through the show, the onstage action comes to a halt as a group of graceful dancers wearing simple qipao and holding reed fans perform a dance number illustrating the leisure life of young women in wartime Shanghai. “Song of the Fisherman” is meant to illustrate the quiet, unassuming beauty of traditional Chinese women, for which it necessarily sacrifices the details of Shanghai’s backstreet culture on the altar of languor and idealized beauty.

A scene photo of

A scene photo from “The Eternal Wave”, shot in Tianjin, 2020. VCG

These dances, which break from plot to emphasize the beauty of traditional Chinese femininity, have become a recurring feature of Chinese theater in recent years, including “Fair Ladies on an Outing” in “Du Fu” and “Han Dance” in “Five Stars of the Orient. Tangential to the plot and intentionally glamourized, they are easily edited into short clips for inclusion in TV shows or online videos. They also fit perfectly into the current moment of guochao, or “China chic,” as cultural workers gradually realize that they can harness young people’s newfound appreciation for Chinese aesthetics for profit. That they are also in tune with national cultural policies, which makes them a safe bet both politically and economically, is only a plus.

Even viewed in less cynical terms, the artistry of these dance numbers tends to vary widely. “Fair Ladies on an Outing” is based on one of Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu’s most famous works. The poem, which describes the extravagant springtime excursions of the cousins ​​of court official Yang Guozhong, is a satire on the Tang nobles’ ostentatious displays of wealth. In the words of Qing dynasty scholar Pu Qilong: “Every line of this depiction is dripping with irony. Although the author never explicitly shares his exasperation, it is always present between the lines.

Onstage, the dance, which features Lady Yang and a flock of maidens swaying and swaying around her, occurs during the first half of the show and contrasts dramatically with the solemn and ceremonial dance of the “Procession of chariots” which follows shortly after. Together they offer a depiction of the prosperity of the Tang dynasty on the eve of its decline, as well as the frivolity and idleness of the noble class. However, once “Fair Ladies on an Outing” is taken out of context for use in promotional videos, galas and variety shows, the irony is completely lost – it simply becomes a hollow display of feminine beauty. which satisfies the public’s romanticized notions of noblewomen. in ancient China.

A scene photo of “Du Fu,” taken in Chongqing, 2021. Zhang Peijian/VCG

A scene photo of “Du Fu,” taken in Chongqing, 2021. Zhang Peijian/VCG

Some viewers, including commentators from the Bilibili youth video platform, questioned and debated the meaning of these dances. Similarly, on Douban, many viewers criticized the “Deep Green” dance in “An Expanse of Green” for focusing only on the aesthetic beauty of China’s intangible heritage, rather than delving into what makes the old scroll painting “A Thousand Li of Rivers”. and Mountains” unique.

Once “Fair Ladies on an Outing” is taken out of context for use in promotional videos, galas and variety shows, the irony is completely lost.

Nonetheless, exaggerated displays of beauty and patriotic aesthetics are clearly a winning combination, both commercially and politically. The various Chinese theaters and troupes rely heavily on government funding, especially in the case of major productions. Recent years have seen a wave of “main melodic” works come onto the scene: patriotic performances that respond to the government’s broad ideological tenets and generally portray the moments of heroism that defined China’s national rejuvenation.

These works are rich in proselytism, their artistic value restricted by their propaganda function. Traditionally, this has limited their appeal, but one-sided portrayals of quintessentially Chinese beauty seem to have avoided this pitfall, allowing producers to indulge in aesthetic fantasies while conveying necessary cultural values.

“Song of the Fisherman” in “The Eternal Wave” sees the female protagonist briefly put aside her revolutionary ambitions to indulge in the joy and beauty of everyday life. In the Mao-era film on which the drama was based, this scene is of course nowhere to be found. The decision to add it to the stage version is telling, as creators increasingly try to incorporate grace, propriety, and romantic love into the mainstream revolutionary canon.

“The Eternal Wave” screenwriter Luo Huaizhen has abundant experience in the “main melody” genre, and he clearly understood how this work differed from typical Chinese revolutionary tales. The show’s tagline reveals the game: “In the long river of time, everything is swept away to the sea; only love and principles firmly resist the current.

“I didn’t write that line in the script – it was spoken by two of the younger cast members,” Luo later explained. “Why are there not only ‘principles’ that last forever, but also ‘love’? Why are they presented as a pair, and why does ‘love’ come before ‘principles’? I guess it boils down to how people of different ages and generations understand revolutionary figures.

Indeed, the placement of “love” before “principles” is a good summary of how the creators are reinventing the “main melody” genre. Combining sentimentality with middle-class aesthetic ideals, they offer young audiences fictionalized visions of past societies and revolutions – visions that can be both cruel and graceful.

For now, this “art for art” approach to packaging major melodic dramas has become a surefire formula for garnering clicks and views — and vital government support. Not only is it fun to watch, but it also ignites the public’s sense of national pride, and the viral success and government support enjoyed by “Song of the Fisherman”, “Han Dance” and “Deep Green” will continue unabated. doubt. to breed imitators. But their growing derivative character, along with the stark contrast between their form and content, becomes hard to ignore. Because as fresh as they seem today, these dances are already on the way to becoming yet another convention from which the creators of the future will have to free themselves.

Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portraitist: Wang Zhenhao.

(Header image: A scene photo from “An Expanse of Green”. By @中国东方演艺 on Weibo)

About Keith Johnson

Check Also

Morecambe’s towering attraction has proven hugely popular

It started with the Blackpool Tower in 1894 modeled, of course, on the 300-meter (984-foot) …