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Song Dynasty poet is star of new stage production

Updated: 2023-12-11 07:50 ( CHINA DAILY )
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Dancers perform in the contemporary dance production, Dongpo: Life in Poems, which was staged in Beijing from Dec 1 to 3. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Dance piece based on work of Su Dongpo currently on tour after performances in Beijing and Shanghai, Chen Nan reports.

Dancer, choreographer, painter and visual artist Shen Wei often looks to the past for inspiration.

One of his epic productions, Scroll Painting, which was performed as part of the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics, was viewed by billions of people around the world. In the breathtaking piece, dancers performed against the backdrop of a constantly changing giant LED scroll displaying Chinese ink paintings. Shen pushed the presentation to new boundaries with his modern choreography, which seemed to replace the brush with the human body, presenting a new vision of an old art form.

His latest offering, a contemporary dance production called Dongpo: Life in Poems, turns to Chinese traditional culture and history once again, this time to focus on Su Dongpo, a Song Dynasty (960-1279) poet, whose work is still celebrated in China today.

Shen, who lives between New York and Paris, was approached by the China Oriental Performing Arts Group to participate in the production in November 2021, while he was working in his studio in Paris.

For months, he researched Su, reading his poems and learning about the man, who was a master of many classical literary and artistic forms, including poetry and essays, as well as calligraphy and painting.

"History is a good source of ideas, and leaves much room for the imagination," Shen said in Beijing, the day after the show was held in the capital between Dec 1 and 3.

He adds that he was hesitant to get involved at first because Su Dongpo is a Chinese cultural icon.

"As I learned about his private and political life, I was intrigued by the man and his work," says Shen, who put all his other projects aside and devoted himself to the production for close to two years.

"I always enjoy the process of preparing for a new project. I've never devoted so much time and energy to one as I have with Dongpo: Life in Poems. It even appeared in my dreams," he says.

A scene from artist Shen Wei's contemporary dance production, Dongpo: Life in Poems, that features lines of poems by the Song Dynasty (960-1279) poet Su Dongpo and one of his paintings. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Shen approached Su less as a character from history and more for what he represents in a much broader cultural context, and Shen wore multiple hats, serving as the show's director, choreographer, scriptwriter, costume designer, visual artistic director and set designer.

Also known as Su Shi, Su Dongpo was born in Meishan in Sichuan province. At a young age, he performed brilliantly in the imperial examinations and began a long and distinguished career as an official in various governmental positions, where he experienced a series of political setbacks, including appointments to minor posts in distant locations.

Despite such hardships, Su remained optimistic in his private and political life. That optimism can also be seen in his poems, many of which vividly describe his experiences.

Shen selected 15 of Su's poems after reading around 2,000 of them, and these became the base of the six acts into which the production is divided, each of which touches on a different aspect of the poet's life, including his painful parting with his beloved wife. Famous lines were displayed onstage in calligraphic form.

Working with Chen Qigang, Shen combined pieces by the composer, including Enchantements Oublies, Itineraire d'une Illusion and Jiang Tcheng Tse, with guqin (Chinese zither) pieces performed by guqin soloist Zhao Xiaoxia.

Other than poems, Shen made use of Su's ink paintings, Xiaoxiang Bamboo and Stone Picture, as well as his own paintings, Untitled No 8, No 6 and No 11, in creating the stage set.

"The training Shen gave the dancers was unique because he has his own system. He didn't tell us to perform with our bodies, but with our hearts," says Su Peng, one of the lead dancers. "Like the production itself, which was a new and mind-opening visual and sound experience, the process of working with Shen was also very different and rewarding."

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