Forbidden Fruit Under the Great Wall

Dance
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Editorial Review

A love story's imposing backdrop

By Lisa Traiger
Friday, December 10, 2010

Initially built to keep invaders out, China's Great Wall has in recent years become a symbol of the once-closed nation's nascent emergence onto the world stage - at least in the view of one Chinese choreographer, Zhang Jigang, whose eye-popping extravaganza "Forbidden Fruit Under the Great Wall" has its American debut Friday at the Kennedy Center.

Written and choreographed by Zhang, one of the directors of the opening and closing ceremonies at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, "Forbidden Fruit" features 65 Chinese folk dancers from the China Shanxi Performing Arts Academy, one of the nation's top academic arts institutions. The five-part drama is drawn from folk tales of the northern province of Shanxi, one of China's wealthiest regions, known as a center of banking, trade and coal mining.

On stage, the Great Wall serves as an imposing backdrop for the production, which tells a tragic tale of young lovers at the turn of the 20th century who are not permitted to marry because of class differences. There's a touch of "Romeo and Juliet," along with an evil insider who provides "Hamlet"-like intrigue. The symphonic music alludes to melodies and scales from the Shanxi province, and the folk-influenced dances attain a grandeur and synchronicity.

The Great Wall represents both China's feudal past and its growing acceptance of modernity and outside influences. "The Jin [Shanxi] merchants normally went out to the Great Wall to do business outside of China," Chang Bailing, deputy director of the China Performing Arts Agency, which is taking "Forbidden Fruit" on tour, said through an interpreter. "This performance represents not only a crossroads of the business of all of China, it also demonstrates a merging of cultures, both different Chinese cultures and outside cultures."

The wall also represents the Chinese people's fascination with large crowds, outsize experiences and operatically grand performances. "The reason can be classified into several parts," Chang noted. "First, we have a large population, and in Chinese views, the more people means more grandeur. Second, Chinese people prefer joyful life and the more people [involved] means much more fun, much more activities and a more active life. And then when we have many more people [on stage], the choreographer can use them in visual patterns to [create] much more stage effects.

"This is a very typical Chinese dance drama," Chang added. "We hope the audience will love and enjoy the show. Of all the arts, we chose a dance drama because dance is a universal language."