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Wild Grass Grows Out of Banned Performance


Choreographer Wang Yuanyuan and producer Han Jiang have created a dazzling dance show after their controversial The Golden Lotus was banned in China - and that's no coincidence. Chen Nan reports.

The banning of the stage adaptation of the 16th-century Chinese novel Jin Ping Mei (The Golden Lotus) in 2011 turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

It prompted choreographer Wang Yuanyuan and the Beijing Dance Theater to divert their energies toward other projects.

The Golden Lotus is an adaptation of a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) novel - and one of China's most erotic works. Both the book and the stage production are banned for their explicit portrayals of sex and corruption in a decadent society.

"After we encountered the troubles brought by the banning of The Golden Lotus, we reflected upon and deliberated the challenges we face," Beijing Dance Theater producer and lighting designer Han Jiang says.

"It was painful. We felt helpless. Our plight reminded us of Lu Xun's Wild Grass."

Wild Grass is a 1927 prose poem collection.

Wang, who co-founded the troupe with Han in 2008, says: "The struggle for survival that Lu describes resonated with our experience. So, we wanted to use dance moves to portray the connection we feel with Wild Grass when we think about ourselves and our society."

"Usually, our shows in China only sell 40 percent of the seats, which is enough. But The Golden Lotus sold out before its tour," Wang adds.

"We didn't expect the overwhelming success or the troubles."

Wang's work had been welcomed rather than prohibited up to that point. She's celebrated for choreographing the ballet Raise the Red Lantern and part of the 2008 Beijing Olympics' opening ceremony.

The setback prompted Han to work on the drama A Madman's Diary, adapted from Lu Xun's first major short story. Next, the theater started on Wild Grass.

Wild Grass deals with the struggle within oneself and the clash with the outside world. It's comprised of three chapters - Dead Fire, Farewell Shadows and Dance of Extremity.

The poetic first chapter premiered at the Royal Danish Theater this May. The complete 80-minute piece debuted in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, in September and will be staged at Peking University Hall on Dec 11.

Wang says choreography's greatest challenge is accurately expressing emotions with every movement.

But Wild Grass was different.

"It was so smooth," Wang says.

"It was like having a dialogue with Lu. Humans are just like wild grass - they grow everywhere, they die and they're reborn. Wild grass deserves as much respect as people for its dogged vitality."

The stage is covered with white paper leaves that fly as the dancers spin and jump.

The show's music comes courtesy of Oscar-winner Su Cong, who composed the soundtrack of the 1987 film The Last Emperor.

Wang says she didn't know Su until the musician came to her office to propose cooperation.

The show's music is performed live.

Wang was trained both in China and in the West, and says she takes inspiration from literary classics.

The choreographer based her 2007 Stirred From a Dream on the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) classic opera Peony Pavilion.

She took inspiration from Lu Xun's second short story collection - 1926's Wandering - to create Haze a year later.

Wang believes history is a supreme source of ideas because it leaves much room for the imagination.

She says she's most interested in the connection between the past and present.

"I'm not into retelling or reinterpreting the classics," Wang says.

"People who live in different eras share similar feelings about the relationships among people and society. I can express my own feelings about our society today through those classics."

The Beijing Dance Theater has been booked for more than 40 shows in 12 countries in 2013.

The 2014 Next Wave Festival, organized by BAM Harvey Theater in New York, has also invited the troupe to perform Wild Grass.

Han says audiences overseas receive the troupe's show more enthusiastically and applaud for at least 10 minutes at the curtain call.

Han believes it's ironic that the controversy surrounding The Golden Lotus points out what Chinese audiences are missing.

The theater plans to produce a dance work especially for Chinese audiences next year.

Wang will use abstract modern dance to present a performance based on director Feng Xiaogang's 2006 film The Banquet, which was loosely based on Shakespeare's Hamlet.

"Unlike audiences in the US and the Europe, Chinese audiences need stories," Han says.

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By Chen Nan (China Daily)