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Print Edition> Lifestyle
UPDATED: March 11, 2013 NO. 11 MARCH 14, 2013
Dunhuang Dance
The classic Chinese dance drama Silk Road thrills New York audiences with colorful pageantry, exciting choreography and a message of international friendship
By Corrie Dosh

The Silk Road dance drama performance staged at Lincoln Center in New York on February 27 (CAEG)

The future looked bleak for Yunis, a wealthy Persian trader lost in a swirling dust storm in the middle of the Gobi Desert, until the beautiful Yingniang and her father Zhang Shenbi, a painter, came to the rescue. It was act one in a tale of the triumph of good over evil and international friendship—and the New York audience at Lincoln Center was completely enthralled.

Silk Road, a classic Chinese dance drama celebrating the desert city of Dunhuang, in Gansu Province, made its New York debut on February 27. Delighting audiences with dazzling, colorful costumes, a large cast of 60 dancers and stunning choreography, Silk Road takes an "academic approach" to spreading the artistic culture and historical traditions of west China, say organizers.

Silk Road is more than a story: It's a living history of Dunhuang and the grottos that have since become a UNESCO heritage site. The tale follows the maiden Yingniang, who is captured by bandits and rescued by Yunis. After reuniting with her father Zhang, she inspires his paintings in the grottos of Dunhuang with a dance and by playing a lute (called the pipa) behind her head. Yingniang and Yunis flee to Persia to escape the city's evil mayor, and Zhang is forced to paint the famous frescos of the Dunhuang grottos until his death. In a triumphant conclusion, the governor punishes the corrupt mayor and celebrates international cooperation with guests from the various nations along the Silk Road trading route.

Under the direction of Lu Jinlong, President of the Gansu Dance Theater, Silk Road is a visual feast. The top stage, lighting and costume designers of China have come together to present the classic tale in a new way. The paintings of the Dunhuang caves seem to come to life on stage, transporting the audience into the past to the height of the Silk Road trade.

"After years of research on the magnificent Dunhuang frescoes, we created a new category of dance, which is called 'Dunhuang Dance.' It merges Chinese classic dance and modern foreign dance, and is based on all kinds of different gestures in the frescoes. In a sense, Dunhuang Dance is one of the most important parts of academic research about Dunhuang," said Lu.

The cast also took an academic approach to their roles and became cultural ambassadors. An Ning, who played painter Zhang, masterfully conveyed the emotion of a father losing his beloved daughter and joyful reunion with gravity-defying leaps and flips. To prepare for his role, An said he spent many hours sitting in the grottos absorbing the stories depicted in the colorful frescos.

"I spent a lot of time doing research on Dunhuang and watching the frescos to understand the spirit of Dunhuang arts," he said.

The lithe and graceful Chen Chen, who played the maiden Yingniang, said she also hoped to educate as well as entertain American audiences.

"I'm very excited and hope I can perform perfectly on the stage, in order to help the American audience better understand our Asian art," she said.


The troupe's mission to research, create and perform the traditional music and dance of Dunhuang culture was appreciated by audience members like Jo Johnson, an expert on tea and author of two children's books on how tea connects world cultures.

"My thing is tea, and tea was a big part of the Silk Road trade," Johnson said. "So, I came because of that but I've learned a lot about the culture."

Johnson said the colorful costumes and set design were stunning and she was inspired by the presentation along with her daughter/co-author Joya Powell.

"I really liked the dust storm," Johnson said of the first act. "It was done so nicely. I like that the dancers were swirling around and the main character (Yunis) rolled and fell and followed the choreography of the other dancers."

Though Johnson has not yet traveled to China and knew nothing about Dunhuang history and culture, she said she was able to learn and be inspired by the performance.

"It was truly wonderful," she said.

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