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Romantic Dance Ensemble to Wow US Theater-goers

Huajin Dance Ensemble from Shanxi Province is set to wow theater-goers in the United States and Australia with their latest performance A Handful of Wild Jujubes.

The ambiguous title is a direct translation of the Chinese name and may not be immediately inspiring, so choreographer Zhang Jigang has renamed his work The Forbidden Fruit at the Foot of the Great Wall.

Set in north China, the performance depicts the tale of how bitter and forbidden love can destroy lives.

Before the ensemble sets off on their tour overseas, theater-goers in Beijing will be able to see the performance at the Great Hall of the People on Thursday when the company performs the closing show of the Third Beijing International Dance Festival.

The wild jujube was indigenous to north China's Shanxi Province at the end of 19th century, the time when the five-act dance is set. Wild Jujube is the name of the heroine who falls in love, with the story ending in tragedy as the lovers are killed by eating a handful of poisonous wild jujubes.

The story starts with the death of the wealthy merchant Yin. He leaves a failing business, a widowed mother and a retarded son. The housekeeper plots to obtain Yin's property, so he forces his daughter named Wild Jujube to marry the retarded son so as to inherit Yin's business and fortune by right and title.

But Wild Jujube loves a young apprentice of Yin's family, which infuriates the housekeeper, who tries to stop their secret love affair.

Cultural roots

Born in Shanxi and starting to dance with the Shanxi Song and Dance Ensemble at the age of 12, choreographer Zhang loves his homeland and his choreography is greatly influenced by the folk culture of Shanxi.

After accepting the commission by the Huajin Dance Company three years ago, Zhang returned to his home province to draw inspiration from the folk artists, although he has created a dozen critically acclaimed dances with a unique Shanxi flavour.

For this full-length dance, Zhang has choreographed a series of touching pas de deux between Wild Jujube and the young apprentice.

Qiu Hui, who plays the apprentice, displays his breathtaking techniques in jumping, spinning and lifting Wild Jujube played by Tian Fang. Except for the last embrace, Qiu expresses his love for Wild Jujube by embracing her from behind, vividly expressing his shyness and tenderness and the reserved nature of the lovers.

"Love is universal and timeless, but the way of expressing love differs from country to country. We Chinese are reserved and the love between Wild Jujube and the apprentice is secret, so my choreography tends to bring this out," said Zhang.

In addition, Zhang has arranged many impressive sequences involving women with bound feet holding silk fans (in Act One), the hard working apprentices (in Act Two), a wedding dance (in Act Four) and the businessmen and their camels in the desert (in Act Five).

"Some of these group sequences help enhance the local flavour old local artists who are rooted here showed me some historical records of the folk costumes and culture here. Their experience of creating and those books greatly helped me to create," said the choreographer.

In Act Two, he shows how merchant families train their apprentices and what the young apprentices learn from the successful businessmen. This reveals the special tradition of merchants from Shanxi Province.

Shanxi businessmen

Shanxi Province occupies the mountainous region between the central plain and the northern desert. The routes through it were essential for trade and communication between the Han ethnic group of the central plains and the desert tribes living in frontier regions.

Trading links, dating from the first century BC, flourished during the Sui and Tang dynasties (581-907). The strong family loyalties of those living in Shanxi coupled with ethics of diligence, thrift and teamwork brought about a thriving merchant culture that endured for some 500 years, until the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

True to their roots, these merchants would bring their wealth back to their homes where their families had long been settled and they built impressive mansions.

The music composed by Fang Ming, screen-set by Long Hua and Wang Ruiguo and costumes by Song Li, all feature rich folk customs and the culture of Shanxi Province.

On stage, audiences will see realistic Shanxi architecture such as the high grey walls, the square courtyard and the watch towers.

The wedding scene similar to Zhang Yimou's film Raise the Red Lanterns appears in Act Four when Wild Jujube is forced to marry the son.

A Handful of Jujubes or The Forbidden Fruit at the Foot of the Great Wall is a showcase of folk Shanxi dance and music, puppet shows, architecture, the unique Shanxi merchant lifestyle and most importantly the universal and timeless theme of love in the mystical region.

(China Daily January 16, 2006)

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