To get the full effect of the Shanghai Song and Dance Ensemble, which performed Tuesday at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, you really had to stick around for the encore.
That was when the disco feel that had been barely held in check all evening was finally let loose, and the colored lights swirled and the beat cranked up and there was Artistic Director Doudou Huang bounding across the stage in his feathered headdress, clapping his hands until the crowd clapped along. Then the rest of the company filed out in their costumes -- the ponytailed buffoon and the two flirts he was pursuing, the stern Terra Cotta Warrior and dozens of others in elaborate dress jogging along behind Huang in a snaking parade around the front of the stage, ending in the Wave. The one you do at a football game.
This is the other side of dance in China, not to be confused with the artier forms we've seen in past weeks during the Festival of China. China has lots of these song-and-dance ensembles, organized as the "official" performance troupes of various provinces and cities. Beijing alone hosts a half-dozen such groups, including the Song and Dance Ensemble of the Political Department of the Chinese People's Liberation Army. The Shanghai troupe came into being in 1979, but in the five years that it has been under the direction of Huang, its leading dancer and choreographer, it has grown in national status. The 28-year-old Huang, one of the country's highest-profile dancers, has something close to rock-star status in China. He performed a solo at last summer's Olympic Games in Athens, and we're bound to see him in the spotlight at the 2008 Games in Beijing.
In fact, the troupe's performance Tuesday night felt like a warm-up for a global TV tribute. The "Chinese cultural legends" that inspired the opening piece, "Symbols of China," had been boiled down to glossy eye candy for mass consumption. The Terra Cotta Warriors, modeled on the staggering discovery of 7,000 Qin Dynasty figures buried underground (one is on view by the Terrace Theater), were grim and thumpy -- except when they were turning back flips or balancing on one leg with the other tucked behind an ear. Huang, the central warrior, delivered the punchiest moves; during one explosive split leap you could hear the smack of his foot on his forehead.
Other parts of "Symbols" included impressively limber opera-style dancers whipping the long sleeves of their gowns around like ribbons; martial-arts combatants stalking each other and then more stalking by dancers depicting the battles won and lost in the ancient game of Go. Each section was heavily salted with acrobatics. Colorful garb, swishing lights and cheesy, synthesized music abounded. Subtlety was not on the program.
Music, however, was the surprising highlight of the last work, "Six Dance Imageries From the Zhou Dynasty." This work drew on the 1978 unearthing of an elaborate set of bronze bells, buried for 2,400 years but still playable. An imposing reproduction of this set stood onstage, its 64 bells hanging in three tiers from a large wooden frame, the largest about the size of a kitchen trash can. Musicians of the Hubei Imperial Bronze Bell Ensemble performed an evocative score by Chinese composer Tan Dun, prodding the bells with wooden poles or pounding them with mallets. The sound was wonderful, velvety and infinitely resonant, punctuated by periods of silence. The musicians themselves were fascinating to watch, wrapped in richly layered robes and possessing a sense of quiet purpose. They presented something that felt authentic, which is what the dancing -- here as in the rest of the program -- never offered.
Huang's choreography took inspiration from inscriptions on the bells, as well as other artifacts, and the unfortunate result was static and dry. Shirtless, with several feet of feathers protruding from his head, he performed a lengthy solo that never progressed beyond a series of frozen postures; at another point a group of masked dancers crept on to join him, but even then, the work felt as heavy as those bronze bells.
Also on the program was "Collection of Chinese Folk Dances," culled from the several dozen ethnic groups across the country. These "folk dances" were processed through the same filter that gave us the view of kung fu via Cirque du Soleil in "Symbols of China." It was a cabaret-style revue, the way Havana's Club Tropicana might offer Tibetan or Mongolian dance. Minus the bottle of rum on the table. Rum, in fact, might have improved the whole thing considerably.