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Cultural Legacy Carried by Faithful Artists

How to preserve traditional ethnic minority arts in the face of the hurricane of contemporary arts has long posed a big challenge to contemporary artists.

For the members of the China Central Nationalities Song and Dance Ensemble, their solution is to integrate traditional and modern forms.

Not long ago, they presented a gala show of folk songs and dances called "Heaven, Earth and Auspicious Clouds," in an attempt to preserve the original flavor of traditional folk art while reflecting the lifestyle of minorities which is full of fashion and fiery passion.

Established in 1952 and based in Beijing, the ensemble started with members traveling to the remote and often mountainous or prairie areas in south, west and north China to look for the best of the ethnic minority dancers and musicians and collect their songs and dances.

The founders believed the ensemble could only develop when it had its roots in the rich cultural and artistic heritage of the ethnic minorities in China.

Ogmi Gyatsan, once a Tibetan dance master and leader of a local itinerant troupe, joined the ensemble in 1953 after the founding members discovered him in what is known as today's Shangrila County, in Southwest China's Yunnan Province.

He drew the founding members' attention with his passionate and rhythmic Tibetan folk dance with a Tibetan drum called reba, which is still often performed when the Tibetans celebrate harvests.

Ogmi Gyatsan, 76, rose from a vagrant performer to a renowned national artist and once the ensemble's deputy director.

Creativity is in every member's veins. Both the founders and the new members -- most of them folk artists like Ogmi Gyatsan -- joined hands to make best use of what they have inherited from the ethnic minority arts tradition to create songs and dances for the theater-goers.

Meanwhile, they established the tradition to keep their links to their roots by spending time in minority populated areas, collecting new folk songs and dances and refreshing their memories of the lives and customs of the minorities they feature in their theatrical presentations.

The dance "Reba on the Grassland," now in the ensemble's regular classical repertoire, is the best of Ogmi Gyatsan's representative works.

"People always think that the dance is original," Ogmi Gyatsan said.

"In fact, the very original dance was not fit for presentation on the stage. I made a few changes in the choreography to give the dance better appeal," said Ogmi Gyatsan.

But to enable the dancers to present authentic work, Ogmi Gyatsan recalled, he and almost all the performers went and stayed with local Tibetan people for some time in Yunnan, to know better the habits and culture of the Tibetans.

In the past half a century, the members have also witnessed the changes in the lives of minority people over.

The changes are becoming more dramatic nowadays.

The local people in the once remote areas now have access to such modern media as television and videos while travelers from outside venture into those areas, bringing with them more fashionable contemporary works of performing arts.

It is only natural for people, especially the younger generation, to embrace fresh new things different from what their parents learned as children in the more closed communities.

As a result, the ensemble fear that some valuable ethnic minority dances and songs face extinction as the younger generation is reluctant to learn and pass the arts down.

Ogmi Gyatsan said he was worried the young generation may be misled to take his reba dance as the original, in the event that it is no longer one of the most featured dances among the nomadic and farming Tibetans.

In the face of the onslaught from the drive to modernization, the ensemble has thought hard to find solutions.

According to Gao Shouxin of the Manchu minority, a renowned writer-in-residence with the ensemble, there are two tendencies in the arts circles. One is holding tight the indigenous ethnic arts and refusing to make progress, and the other is to bring in more fashionable globally popular culture.

Neither of the tendencies are good for the preservation and development of ethnic minority performing arts today, said Gao.

Gao has been engaged in the arts for over 40 years and his lyrics for the song entitled "56 Nationalities, 56 Flowers" is familiar by people at home and abroad.

He believes that a good way to preserve the traditional ethnic minority artistic legacy is to document and record the works and the traditional ways of life.

"However, stage art must be developed and injected with new expressions that keep up with the times on the basis of the tradition," said Gao.

For instance, the ancient music of the Naxi minority living in Yunnan Province consists of incomplete scores and unique temperament in itself.

Gao said few people today actually like it, so some kind of arrangement with modern methods has been done before it is presented on the stage.

Despite the fact, the original has been recorded and the local Naxi people in Lijiang, Yunnan, have worked to hand down the traditional music.

But the ensemble members have made more daring attempts at artistic creation. They say audiences today are more familiar with works integrating multi-cultural and popular elements, like Tibetan dance with hip-hop beats, and the Uygur music with jazz rhythm.

Deng Lin, chief choreographer-director, who graduated from Central Universities of Nationalities in Beijing, said that good artists should have stirring and creative works instead of clinging only to the tradition.

"To survive in the market that demands a more eclectic style, we have to combine the traditional with modern art," said Deng.

Wang Rongqi, another writer-in-residence with the ensemble, said the traditional ethnic folk culture has many moving and stirring factors, but artists must go on ahead of the times.

However, the members also believe that preserving traditional legacy is an urgent task.

"I'm afraid that we have not been able to record all the indigenous ethnic minority artistic works," added Ogmi Gyatsan.

Li Bo, office director of the ensemble, said: "Excellent works are always from real life and stage art depends on continuous inspiration from real life experiences."

In their efforts to preserve the tradition, the ensemble has encountered problems, with a shortage of funds a major obstacle.

(China Daily October 11, 2004)

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