Beijing Dance Theater thinks big

Choreographer Wang Yuanyuan, a creative force behind the Beijing Olympics opening ceremonies, now runs her own show

On February 20, the globally recognized Beijing Dance Theater will make its Portland debut at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall with a hefty program of contemporary work. Choreographer Wang Yuanyuan directs the 13-member company and creates big, bold pieces that design director Tan Shaoyuan and lighting designer Han Jiang help shape. Although this is the company’s first local appearance, there’s a good chance you’ve already seen Wang’s work.

Beijing Dance Theater makes its Portland debut with striking work including “The Crossing.” Photo courtesy of KMP Artists.

A dancer who trained in China, earned an MFA from Cal Arts and served as the National Ballet of China’s resident choreographer, Wang founded Beijing Dance Theater at the end of 2008. As she recounted in a recent interview with Oregon ArtsWatch, she’d already had plenty of experience by then directing large-scale performances, after playing a prominent role in the famous opening ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, the opening ceremony of the 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing, and the 1997 celebration marking Hong Kong’s return to China. The Olympics opening ceremonies alone featured an estimated 15,000 performers; the other two events featured more than 5,000.

While she is rightly proud of her role in those events (the Olympics opener, especially, required “a lot of artists and people to work together to present the same result,” she said), starting Beijing Dance Theater felt even more significant than choreographing a performance that millions of people watched. “I prefer works that present my personal artistic ideas,” she said. “It is important to express myself. Starting Beijing Dance Theater gave me a more personal and professional sense of achievement.” Since it was founded, her company has toured far and wide, and she has earned best choreographer awards in Bulgaria, the U.S., Russia, and China. 

A section of “Wild Grass,” slated for the Portland show, demonstrates the company’s creative vision. Photo courtesy of KMP Artists.

The company’s Portland show will feature selections from three of her original pieces. The first of these, “Farewell, Shadows” is from Wild Grass, a piece the company tours frequently; it was inspired by the writings of 19th-century Chinese author Lu Xun. Though Wang called Lu Xun “one of the most important writers in the history of Chinese literature,” she doesn’t think audiences necessarily need to know his work to engage with the show: as she pointed out, “This is the international language of dance.” Themes of duality and its exploration within Eastern philosophy run through the work; some reviews have characterized “Farewell, Shadows” as the more playful movement portion of the whole.

The company will also stage The Crossing, the first piece Wang ever created for the company. It has, she said, the “action elements of traditional Chinese dance.” It opens as a single dancer, to the hum of white noise, enters a darkened empty stage divided by a single long paper streamer. Crossing “traces the struggles of the individual dancers to mark the emptiness,” according to the company description of the piece, as a progression of solos, duets, and trios pit the dancers’ lyricism against the spareness of the space and the weight of the sound that fills it.

The show ends with BDT’s interpretation of Hamlet, the most theatrical of the three pieces. It dates back to 2006, when director Feng Xiaogang invited Wang to choreograph dances for Daniel Wu and Zhou Xun, the leads in his film The Banquet, which was based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. After The Banquet was released, the choreography received a great deal of attention, and Wang and Feng began talks of a stage adaptation. While inspired by the film, the adaptation departs on many points to become a new Chinese Hamlet. Extracting characters the Ghost, the New King, the Queen, the Prince, and the Floral Spirit from the original, this production focuses on Hamlet’s psychological struggles, his compassion, and his doubt. This take on the classic tale, which has both historical and contemporary elements, is surely unlike any other version of Hamlet out there.

This show looks to be ambitious and spectacular, as performances that can fill the Schnitzer often are. Behind the blazing marquee lights, however, the company tries to root itself in something more personal and earnest. Of her approach, Wang said, “The most important point is that I think artists should be honest with their works. Only true emotions can lead to sincere works. Works represent the quality of your heart, and more or less represent the living environment you are affected by.” It’s high time that Portland gets to see the company’s vibrant mix of innovation and tradition.

Beijing Dance Theater performs 7:30 p.m. February 20 at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Find tickets here

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