The experience of seeing the Han Tang Yuefu Music and Dance Ensemble at the Joyce Theater on Sunday evening was like peering through a time portal into the China of nearly 2,000 years ago.
The work presented on Sunday, The Feast of Han Xizai, was inspired by a painting of the same name dating from the Tang dynasty and displayed in the National Museum of Beijing. The famous painting depicts many contemporary details about art, fashion, music, and dance, all of which played a part of aristocratic life during the Tang dynasty.
The Feast of Han Xizai is presented as a series of six scenes. The work’s plot concerns an incident at a party involving a guest and a concubine. The incident arouses the anger of Han Xizai, the host of the party and a powerful statesman. Some of the scenes contain no plot development, but demonstrate intricate dance ensembles, solo instrumental and vocal performances, or experiences such as flower arranging or an exquisite tea ceremony.
The minimal sets; beautiful, flowing costumes; and seamless integration of the musicians and dancers all provided the audience with an immersive experience of aristocratic life in the Tang dynasty. The men played small percussive instruments and sometimes sang; interestingly, however, the most important instruments were played by women. The musicians accompanying the dancers were onstage for the entire performance. In general, the dancers moved using slow, internalized motions that were very different from western dance and musical forms. The scale of motion was reduced to such a state that small gestures such as a finger pointing, a turn of the head, or the lifting of a leg in the air gain considerable significance. The performers exuded an internal serenity that was contagious: I found myself in a calm, serene state and smiling often, but my smiles were internal and reflected the subtlety and grace of the performers. The dancers maintained the same facial expressions throughout the performance. Emotions were demonstrated through the use of symbolic gestures: At one point, one of the dancers rubbed her eyes, which I interpreted of course to be tears (she was certainly upset about something!). Some of my favorite moments came when the performers made short, definitive hand movements with distinct musical accents or punctuations. Sometimes this was also done with a turn of the head. All together, these flowing, expertly executed motions left one with a feeling of wondrous calm.
After the performance, it was revealing to observe the audience, which consisted of a mix of Asians and westerners. Throughout the two-hour performance, a group of children a few rows away sat quietly and attentively. I spoke with a man from Romania, who said that he had had to rush to reach the theater and felt agitated, but that 20 minutes or so into the performance he had calmed down and soon felt quite relaxed. One lady asked the young woman selling DVD sets in the lobby whether the dance troupe was from Thailand. “No” was the reply; the ensemble was from Taiwan, not Thailand! From the expression on her face, I wasn’t sure if the lady asking knew where that was either. Other people were asking about the story’s plot and whether the main character was an emperor. One would need to read the program notes to answer such questions, but even then, it wouldn’t be that obvious. Everything about this evening, I thought, was meant to be subtle. It was wonderful to feel these positive vibrations and curiosity as I left the theater having experienced a skillful ensemble of artists. Within the intimacy of the Joyce stage, I thought to myself, all of us had considerably expanded our awareness of China and its rich history and heritage.
Posted by Yee Ping Wu, co-founder of Knoa Software and a graduate of The Juilliard School