Most open-minded balletomanes can venture into a world dance performance and still find some technique to appreciate. There’s the thrill of a Zulu high leg kick, the heel-toe precision of bhangra turns and the bravado of Russian sit-squat-jumps.
And then there’s Chinese sleeve dancing, and even the most culturally curious dance fan is left scratching her head. Why is it art when women, who appear to have windsocks sewn to the arms of their silky gowns, unfurl their sleeves in unison? It can be tough to appreciate — unless you are watching the best sleeve dancers in the world, which Washington audiences had a chance to do over the weekend at the Kennedy Center.
“Qingming Riverside,” a folk-fusion extravaganza funded by the Chinese government, brought two companies to town Friday and Saturday and rented out the Eisenhower Theatre. To honor the 15th anniversary of “the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region,” choreographer Leung Kwok-shing created a roughly 90-minute work for the Hong Kong Dance Company and the Guangdong Song and Dance Ensemble.
Leung faced a challenging task: He had to create a fusion of Eastern folk and Western modern dance, and he had to convey that everything has been hunky-dory since the British handed the island territory back to the Chinese in 1997. The results were alternatively beautiful and bizarre. Although Cantonese was the dominant dialect before the takeover, the recorded songs were performed in Mandarin, ballads about the beauty of the Bian River. All 16 vignettes were inspired by a 12th-century painting, “Along the River during the Qingming Festival.” (“Qingming,” loosely translated, means “spring.”) The pageantry and acrobatics were derived from Chinese opera, and the choreographer also attempted to create movement based on iconic Chinese images.
Some of this came off as rather silly. Take, for example, the five-man “donkey caravan,” with riders who shook as if experiencing epileptic fits. There was also a baffling scene where a cross-dressed guy was carried in a sedan chair by six men with faces painted on their chests. Suddenly, sleeve dancing looked regal by comparison. In one vignette, more than a dozen women shuffled elegantly in modified platform shoes, angled upward as if on pointe, but with wood blocks at the base. They swayed to the warbling music and simultaneously tossed eight-foot folds of fabric into the air.
The strongest balletic scene, by far, was called “Lovers in the Rain,” and it opened with 10 nearly naked men sliding two-story-tall umbrellas out on stage. A woman soon joined each of them, and the guys would slide the stalks as women swirled around them. Pole dancing came to mind, as did the umbrella scene in Jerome Robbins’s “The Concert.” Later in the piece, umbrellas pushed aside, the women all ran across the stage and landed in the men’s arms, each about a beat apart. It’s doubtful that Leung was looking to copy Paul Taylor’s lovers’ leaps in “Aureole”; rather, it seems that some ideas of what makes for beautiful onstage imagery can transcend culture — and politics.
Ritzel is a freelance writer.