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Confucius

A Chinese spectacle with a beating heart at its core.

A scene from The China National Opera & Dance Drama Theater’s production “Confucius" (Photo credit: Liu Haidong)

A scene from The China National Opera & Dance Drama Theater’s production “Confucius” (Photo credit: Liu Haidong)

Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin, Critic

The China National Opera & Dance Drama Theater’s production of Confucius at the David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, differs in one important feature from the usual empty spectacular entertainments China keeps sending to the United States.  Although Confucius is certainly a spectacle—and is certainly entertaining—it has a beating human heart at its center in the form of the marvelous Hu Yang in the title role.  Mr. Hu manages to overcome an overdone mise en scene (by Ren Dongsheng who also designed the color-coded lighting) to triumph as a flesh and blood man, albeit one whose influence is still felt today.

Mr. Hu, though tiny and engulfed in loose grey and white robes, had a gravity and charisma that communicated a range of emotions, filling the Koch with just a smile.

Confucius lived in the fifth century B.C., coincidentally, the same period as the Buddha thousands of miles away in India (a fact used as the basis of Gore Vidal’s novel, Creation).  Written in broad strokes by Liu Chun and directed with a steady sense of rhythmic flow by Kong Dexin (a 77th generation direct descendant of Confucius!), Confucius is more a sketchy reduction of the great philosopher’s life, than an in-depth representation of his complicated philosophies.  The only bits of his wisdom we get are quotes from his works projected onto large screens at either side of his stage: “Wherever you go, go with all your heart”; “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated”; and, “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising whenever we fall.”

A scene from The China National Opera & Dance Drama Theater’s production “Confucius (Photo credit: Liu Haidong)

A scene from The China National Opera & Dance Drama Theater’s production “Confucius (Photo credit: Liu Haidong)

Otherwise, the only hints of Confucius’ influence come in the obeisance proffered him by the floating chorus members as his journeys through ancient China led him to the revelations that coalesced into a religion, Ruism.

This dance/theater piece is subtitled “Teacher, philosopher, man who shaped a nation,” a rather big theme to dramatize effectively, especially when the mandate is spectacle.  Mr. Liu’s barebones, chronological script (consisting of little more than narrative plot advancements and quotes from Confucius) first finds Confucius a brutalized presence in the court of the Duke of State (Zhu Yin, zestfully portraying the enervation of over-indulgence) whose evil Minister (Guo Haifeng, zingingly evil) works overtime to frustrate Confucius’ effort.  Confucius becomes the love object of and mentor to the Concubine (lovely, floating Tang Shiyi) and, finally becomes the beloved and respected sage.

Kong Dexin’s choreography paraded large choruses about the stage in flowing geometric patterns using a hybrid movement vocabulary of ballet, martial arts, acrobatics and mime. Although often quite lovely to watch, Ms. Kong’s contribution was repetitive and lacking in dramatic focus.

A scene from The China National Opera & Dance Drama Theater’s production “Confucius (Photo credit: Liu Haidong)

A scene from The China National Opera & Dance Drama Theater’s production “Confucius (Photo credit: Liu Haidong)

Mr. Ren’s scenery consisted of a number of large, moving hanging panels, painted in gold and covered in ancient Chinese script, most likely the actual words of the prophet.  These panels wittily echoed the slatted wood scrolls upon which Confucius wrote his treatises.  Set pieces (statuary, thrones, trees, etc.) were brought on as needed.

The extraordinary—and numerous—period costumes by Yang Donglin filled the stage with bright colors and were a show in themselves, making each of the principal characters distinct and identifiable, not to forget the range of costumes for the chorus of nearly sixty, hard-working dancers.

Confucius, coming in at an efficient 90 minutes, is a Chinese spectacle that nearly overcomes its expansive staging to get to the heart of its title character.  Although not entirely successful, it’s worth a visit.

Confucius (January 5 – 8, 2017)

David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, Broadway at 63rd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-496-0600 or visit http://www.davidhkochtheater.com

Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission

Joel Benjamin
About Joel Benjamin (206 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

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