‘Chinese New Year Spectacular’ @ the Buell

23 Mar

“Chinese New Year Spectacular” easily consumed the Buell Theater’s wide stage last weekend.

These virtual pages may seem an odd place for a review of a cultural variety show that contains zero guitars, Chuck Taylor All-Stars or patchouli-scented necklaces. But even when Reverb was printed in the Denver Post’s Friday arts section (oh, those halcyon days) we wrote about more than just straight-up musical events. Classical string quartets? Modern dance? Anarchist gatherings? Your mom’s knuckle-headed bakesale that ended in a smoldering pile of child clown shoes? You get the idea…

Due to previously-made plans, I only caught half of the “Chinese New Year Spectacular” premiere at the Buell Theater on Friday night, but that hour-long stint contained enough spectacle to fill a phone book’s worth of reviews. You can read a brief history of “Chinese New Year Spectacular” in a piece I did last week, or you can scan the production company’s website, but here’s the short version: The show purports to offer an accurate take on traditional Chinese culture, certainly more so than anything the current Communist government could present. This show, its organizers contend, is the antidote.

Even before the show started it felt like a regal affair steeped in history. My friend Paul and I found our way into a pre-show VIP party where Mayor John Hickenlooper and various Chinese ex-pats, artists and media types were chatting, sipping cocktails and eating sushi from silvery platters (was P.F. Chang’s closed or something? Sushi is Japanese). Costumed women greeted you at the door, and the soft strains of traditional Chinese music filled the air. Hickenlooper read a proclamation about the show’s first appearance in Denver before show advisor Erping Zhang and choreographer Vina Lee spoke gratefully of their reception here. Paul and I felt woefully underdressed in our Casual Friday attire.

In other words, the show was a bona fide cultural event, and indeed, “Chinese New Year Spectacular” has found worldwide success over its three years of touring. It is reasonable to assume the show will return to Denver in a bigger, better and more colorful way. From the start, the pageantry of the costumes, grand symmetry of the choreography, and marriage of melodic strains and smoke machine-addled lighting made for an stunning audio-visual feast. So stunning, in fact, that if you were unprepared for the onslaught you may have felt a bit pummeled.

Here’s how it broke down: Each five-to-ten minute vignette (there were 19, divided by a 20-minute intermission) was preceded by an intro from a pair of well-scrubbed hosts trading English and Chinese-language jokes and phrases. Some were painfully forced, like a game show host reading from a teleprompter (especially male host Jared Madsen, who had all the warmth of a mannequin) but mostly they were friendly and helpful.

The “Nymphs of the Sea” dance blurred the line between performer and scene as the dancers obscured themselves behind long, silky, deep blue veils. Digitally-projected, animated ocean backdrops helped the heighten the illusion. Fluttering veils parted to reveal a line of women, each hitting flawless marks while running through classical Chinese dance moves. Other bits, like the “Mongolian Bowl Dance,” included moments of “will they/won’t they” circus tension as each dancer balanced three bowls on her head and glided across the stage or turned quickly on one foot.

If anything, the show’s shortcomings were its occasional lack of subtlety, especially when religious overtones appeared and lingered heavy in the air. Falun Gong contributed the bulk of the show’s messages, even if they weren’t always spelled out. From the piano-soprano duet “May You Understand” to the baritone performance “Truth Alone Sets You Free,” the not-so-subtle lyrics and politics oozed from the stage.

“Fruits of Goodness” found two young Asian punks trapped in a temple during a sandstorm, where statues eventually came to life and granted them enlightenment. “The Risen Lotus Flower” demonstrated Chinese Communist repression and violence against jailed Falun Gong practitioners, culminating in a triumph set against a backdrop of projected digital effects that would bewilder most video game aficionados. (Most surreal moment: Dancers in black outfits with red hammer-and-sickle emblems mock-beating the other dancers).

The way the show veered from secular to devout threw me, and probably a few others in the crowd. Of course, what can you expect from a troupe called Divine Performing Arts? One audience member (a Chinese expatriate from Westminster) sent me a note yesterday saying he felt he’d been duped, that the show was “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” and that he resented “being subjected to a religious rally unwittingly. Falun Gong has the right to stage any performances, but they do not have the right to misrepresent themselves!”

I don’t quite feel that harshly. Causes that champion truth, understanding and non-aggression are certainly more palatable than most, if not all, ideologies. But I can see how someone with only a passing knowledge would be unprepared for the show’s overt religious dimension. Fortunately, it didn’t dominate the night.

And I only caught half the show.

text from: http://www.facts.org.cn/puop/201002/t106152.htm

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