Reprinted from yesterday's late editions
The Performing Arts Company of the People's Republic of China, which began a week of performances at Wolf Trap Tuesday night before an enthusiastic crowd of 5,200 offered a spectacle which was at once colorful in the extreme, and both fascinating and frustrating in equal degree.
The color was a constant source of appeal. The Chinese, it is no secret, have an extraordinary color sense, quite different from Western sensibilities in the mixture and blending of hues, but thoroughly consistent in its own terms and dazzling in design. Whatever else may have been happening on stage, the costumes, masks, make-up and decor were a visual feast.
The fascination came from the confrontation with the contemporary performance practices of one of the world's oldest and most highly elaborated cultures, and one which by reason of international politics has been quarantined from Western view for a long time.
Over the past several years, however, an internal "thaw" in China and a mutual softening of relations between our two nations have resulted in a gathering trickle of cultural exchange, of which the current Chinese export troupe is so far the most ambitious.
The frustration had two chief causes - the inevitable limitations of a program made up entirely of excerpts and samplings, and disappointment in the generally schlocky character of so many of the offerings, which seemed either crassly adulterated for Western consumption or trifling to begin with.
The troupe of 150 singers, actors, dancers, musicians and acrobats, the largest single group of performers ever to appear outside China in modern times, is not an integrated ensemble, but rather an ad-hoc collection representing a very broad spectrum of Chinese art and entertainment. The show is basically a vaudeville - a series of turns - and the range of material encompasses the sublime and the meretricious. Even at its best, however, this first of two programs interprets "arts" to mean, not the transmutation of human experience under the sign of eternity, but the exhibition of skills and crafts.
By far the most impressive elements of the program were the two excerpts from the repertoire of the Peking Opera, a 200-year-old artistic genre that was under a ban during the reign of the so-called "Gang of Four" but has now been restored to its former eminence within Chinese culture. It is an art of many arts, in which the individual performer must be expert in dance, mime, speech, song and gymnastics.
It is partly this multifaceted nature of Peking Opera which makes it also the most spectacular of Chinese forms, and for this reason too, the scene called "Monkey Makes Havoc in Heaven" received the honored last place on the program as a blockbuster finish, with its breathtaking tumbling, swordplay and jousting.
The mythical story concerns the powerful and witty Monkey King, who, having been snubbed by the Heavenly Powers, crashes the celestial Peach Banquet anyway and plays havoc with his unwilling hosts. This is merely the scaffolding for an awesome display of solo and ensemble skills of the utmost virtuosity, precision and refinement. What holds the whole thing together and keeps it from being merely a pyrotechnical circus is the controlling sense of style which envelops every movement, sight and sound.
Special interest also attached to the excerpt from the "model revolutionary" ballet, "Red Detachment of Women," one of the didactic pieces created under the "Gang of Four" which bent the Western heritage of classical ballet toward the service of the "people's liberation."
The scene depicts the Red Army rescue of a beleaguered peasant girl, who has been cruelly abused by her landlord captor, and it is performed with so much conviction and deftness by the dancers that her plights and salvation are rather moving, in a sobstory sort of way. But it's a bizarre sight to see the steps, poses and movements of the elegant, imperially spawned art of ballet given so militant and polemical a veneer.
The rest of the program, including piano, vocal and instrumental solos, as well as a "Ribbon Dance" and a "Lotus Dance," consisted of fold and traditional material so prettified, westernized and denatured as to seem like so many tourist shop trinkets, however dantily set forth. Oddest of all was the pianist's rendition of a Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody with what one can only call a Chinese accent.