'Thunderstorm' Audiences Thunderstruck

It was a scorching evening in Beijing's early summer. A loud "thunderstorm" of applause fell on the Experimental Theater of Beijing Modern Dance Company as the packed audience of theater-goers expressed their approval of the performance.

One week later, the "thunderstorm" moved to the Shanghai Grand Theater after a performance of a modern dance drama entitled "Thunder and Rain" thrilled the audience and stirred approval ratings within the Chinese dance circle.

Led by choreographer Wang Mei, the undergraduates of the modern dance department of the Beijing Academy of Dance will continue to bring the full-length modern dance drama down south to the Nanjing Culture & Arts Center on June 7 and 8 and to the Guangzhou Friendship Theater on June 14 and 15.

It has been a challenge for 44-year-old Wang to adapt this story, which is very familiar to Chinese audiences, into a modern dance performance.

Written by renowned Chinese playwright Cao Yu (1910-96), "The Thunderstorm" was initially staged as a modern drama in the 1930s. The Beijing People's Art Theater and the Shanghai People's Art Theater both staged their versions in the 1950s, and it remains in their repertoires today. The story was also adapted (twice) into a film with the same name and performed as a ballet by the Shanghai Ballet Troupe in 1983.

The original story focuses on the complicated relationships among members and servants of a large, well-off family - and the family's disintegration as a result of high morbidity and rampant corruption at the turn of the 20th century.

Zhou Puyuan, master of the feudal family, has an affair with the family maid, Shiping, when he is young, and she bears two sons. After he marries Fan Yi, he keeps the elder son of Shiping, Zhou Ping, and sends Shiping away with the younger one. She marries a butler and they have a daughter, Sifeng, who again works as a maid servant for the family. Later, both Zhou Ping and Zhou Chong, son of Fan Yi, fall in love with Sifeng. An entangled family history unfolds in what turns out to be a tragic ending.

Wang does not focus on the story itself but on displaying the complicated relationships among the characters, the desperate and terribly entangled love between the step-mother Fan Yi and Zhou Ping, between Zhou Ping and Sifeng (who turns out to be his sister) and Zhou Chong's innocent love for Sifeng.

"I have been fascinated by their emotional entanglements and suffering hearts," said the talented choreographer, her eyes filled with inspiration.

"The original story reflects women in feudal society living with oppression from men, and it shows the women's fighting spirit at that time. But I try to connect the characters with today's people, who also have the same unsettling moods and lives," she said.

"Actually, the idea of creating a work around the theme of the emotions and destiny of women has been lingering in my mind for four or five years. Finally, I chose the story to express myself. In my mind, Sifeng, Fan Yi and Shiping represent women from the young to the old," she said.

In Wang's choreography, they are not three women but one. Every woman follows the way of the innocent Sifeng, who dreams of sweet love but has to face the harsh reality of a passionate but oppressed Fan Yi, who is brave enough to pursue love but breaks down and is finally too old, and Shiping, who loses her lover and lives in the illusion.

"In the dance, Wang is a master to express all the women's emotions," said Du Xiaoqing, a critic with the Chinese magazine "Dance."

The structure of the dance is clear and coherent. "It is the first Chinese modern dance drama among those I have seen bearing no marks of classic ballet," said Ou Jianping, a well- known Chinese dance critic.

Pierre Jean De San Bartolome, a consultant for Annees Croisees France China, said he liked the first half hour very much. "It is one of the best Chinese contemporary theatrical works I have seen. With a modern sense, it is very dramatic and has wonderful choreography."

Some conservative critics believed Wang's story lacks enough drama and that the choreography is not exceptional. But most critics agreed that modern dance is a matter of emotion, rather than motion.

"Rebelling against the set form and the limited range of gestures in traditional dances, a modern dancer performs with communicative impulses in an attempt to touch the audience," said Feng Shuangbai with the Dance Research Institute of Arts Academy of China.

Before the curtain was raised, a long and oppressive piece of music, mixed with ear-shattering thunderclaps in the dark and packed theater, brews a depressing atmosphere for the whole dance.

Then each of the six main dancers sits silently on chairs, a vague beam of light hanging just over their heads. Very slowly, one after another, they make small movements. It seems as if they are having difficulties in breathing.

Suddenly, Fan Yi breaks a bowl of herbal medicine to end the silence, which causes flashbacks of all the love, hate, despair, pursuits and struggles that happen within the rigid and dying family.

The eldest son falls in love with his stepmother, who first declines but finally accepts the immoral love.

Wu Zhenyan as Fan Yi and Jiang Jingyi as Zhou Ping perform a passionate and touching pas de deux. It is widely praised as one of the best dance pieces in the whole drama.

"It took us more than four months to perfect the piece, while the whole dance took less than one year," said Wu.

The 22-year-old dancer defeated 70 contestants to win the golden medal in the Ninth International Dance Contest held in Paris in December 2000.

"At the beginning, I only had a vague idea of what the dance should be, for both I and Jiang felt it was difficult to get Wang's idea on the two characters and their relations," she said.

"But I try to feel the love, the passion and the confused minds and get close to the characters."

Wang then helped them to improve and piece the movements together.

"It is a painstaking work and at times we were trapped in dead ends," Wu said.

Jiang added, "Zhou is a complicated character and I still have a vague understanding of him. So I just catch his passionate love for Fan Yi and try to dance as free and comfortable as I like."

Wu also has a perfect solo after Zhou Ping deserts her for Sifeng. She dances in a seething manner, boiling with passion, buffeted by unseen traps, predicaments and dilemmas.

"She has talent. Wu's technique is wonderful, as is her emotional expressiveness, which are both essential for a modern dancer," Wang said.

"She is a nice girl, mild, gentle and not very fit for the character of Fan Yi. But when she is dancing on the stage, you see a different person. She shines as Fan Yi on stage, dancing with passion and eager self-expression," said Wang.

Zhou Chong, danced by Fei Bo, announces his love for Sifeng in words, which is also a common way that modern dancers often use, as they feel body movements are not enough to express their emotions. The 21-year-old man said his role is "the only sunshine in the dance".

The pas de deux between Shi Mengna, as Sifeng, and Fei is delightful and brimming with youthful vitality. But both Fei and Shi Mengna as Sifeng did not look very mature or relaxed on stage.

Liu Xiaohe, 30, dances as a vivid Shiping. "She is my best choice for the role and always gives wonderful performances from the rehearsal room to the stage." Wang has a high opinion of the solder-turned dancer.

Some group dances depicting the entangled relationships among the six main roles also look novel and natural.

The whole 120-minute-long dance is performed against the backdrop of a large shutter designed by Zeng Li, who is the stage designer of Zhang Yimou's ballet "Raise the Red Lanterns."

"One advantage of the backdrop is to avoid having to tell in what time period the story happens. The other, which is also more important, is that the metal shutter gives a strong sense of oppression," said Zeng.

"I like his design, it looks as dull as ditch water and makes a suffocating space without sunshine for all the tragic persons who dance in," Wang said with appreciation.

The dance ends as all of them die, and the souls fly freely in the heavens.

Light as feathers, they float on the stage, using their bodies to convey the intense undercurrent of flying towards freedom and struggling against entanglements and gravity. Eventually, the raging storm of the dancer's inner world is pacified.

Some critics said the last scene is a superfluous ending. But Wang replies resolutely, "That's my ideal and I do want them to fly in the sky."

(China Daily June 6, 2002)

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