Qingming Riverside

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Editorial Review

Dance as cultural ambassador
By Lisa Traiger
Friday, January 11, 2013

The grandeur of China comes alive at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater this weekend.

Qingming Riverside,” featuring 41 performers from the Hong Kong Dance Company and the Guangdong Song and Dance Ensemble, transforms an ancient Chinese painting into a living tableau of songs, music and dance.

The 18-foot-long scroll painting, “Along the River During the Qingming Festival,” is so well-known in China that it’s frequently equated to the Mona Lisa. Depicting bustling pastoral and city life 900 years ago during the Song dynasty, the painting has inspired generations of Chinese with its intricate images of farmers, fishermen, merchants and other common folk.

It took Gerard Tsang, Hong Kong Dance Company’s executive director, a year of research to craft a script for “Qingming Riverside,” which was choreographed by Leung Kwok-shing.

There’s a cultural concept in China that bigger is better, says Alison Friedman, a former Washingtonian and an expert on Chinese classical and modern dance. In recent years, China has sent other such supersize shows to the Kennedy Center, including “Forbidden Fruit Under the Great Wall” in 2010 and “Silk Road” in 2011. The country often uses its top performing arts companies as cultural diplomats, sending them on tours to world capitals.

“It’s appropriate for them to pick this particular piece to be the new representative of China while looking back to its glory days in Chinese history,” says Friedman, who lives in Beijing. “This can be seen as part of a larger context of what we call ‘Chinese soft power.’ The ministry of culture funds these big troupes, which the Chinese [government] feels represent the grand culture and history of China. They extol the grandiosity of it.”

Tsang doesn’t disagree.

“Of course, China is getting wealthier and more confident, and that indication of self-confidence is seen in lots of big programs involving major investments and people,” he says by phone from his office in Hong Kong. But, Tsang adds, “Qingming Riverside” focuses on regular people. “It’s not about kings and queens,” he says. “It’s about common folks: farmers praying for rain, merchants, traders, females pulling carts. . . . You’ll see lots of common people, their hard work, self-restraint and attitude.”

Tsang says one of his favorite dance sequences features women representing swaying willow trees along a riverbank. The women wear chopines -- wooden platform shoes without heels -- which push their weight forward when they walk.

“So the women walk precariously,” Tsang says, “swaying from one side to another . . . like the willow[s] along the canal.” The shoes recall the practice of binding wealthy Chinese women’s feet. But, Tsang says, “while we reference old traditions, at the same time we’re creating a new dance language.”