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Dongpo: Life in Poems

A Chinese spectacular stage production with depth and great beauty.

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Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin, Critic

There were many exquisite images in Dongpo: Life in Poems choreographed and written by the internationally admired Chinese-American choreographer Shen Wei, part written by Guo Changhong,  presented at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, produced and performed by The China Oriental Performing Arts Group and the Meishan Song and Dance Theatre.  This is a co-presenrtation of the American Dance Festival.

His choreography started with eleventh century Song Dynasty Chinese poet Dongpo’s (also known as Su Shi) philosophical and sensual words and used them as inspiration for a 90-minute elegy that pondered earthly beauties and the inevitability of death.

Dongpo’s travels through life is set forth in the lovely poems—projected in Chinese script and in English—full of observations of nature, sad inner monologues and thoughts intimating the end of a long life. They helped set the tone of Life in Poems, including some humorous trips to the twenty-first century wittily added to the next-to-the-last act:  dancers on skateboards, scooters and other unabashedly modern modes.

Divided into six short acts, each defined by a Dongpo poem projected onto several large scrims, the ballet slowly builds to an eye-popping full cast finale.

A scene from “Dongpo: Life in Poems” at The David H. Koch Theater (Photo credit: courtesy of China Art and Entertainment Group Ltd.)

Projections of beautiful paintings, some ancient, some by Shen Wei, himself, helped evoke many moods. The ever-changing musical score by Chen Qigang ranged from full Western classical to solos for the Guqin, a stringed instrument, played with charm and power by Zhao Xiaoxia sitting on the edge of the Koch stage.

Dongpo began with the appearance of a ghostly male figure, bare-chested and covered in white powder, seemingly floating in space, setting the meditative mood.  Whether or not he represented the Poet, he certainly was an imposing figure as he twisted and bent, his arms moving in smooth patterns, as if inviting the audience on his spiritual journey.

Subsequent sections took the audience on a dreamlike journey.  The large company of elegant dancers, in an inexhaustible array of beautiful costumes (by Shen Wei, as were all the complicated sets, all lit with enthusiasm and drama by Xiao Lihe) danced mostly in unison, spreading across huge set pieces filling the stage with Shen Wei’s smooth combination of large stylized unison dance sections, mostly unfolding slowly and hypnotically.

As the work progressed the fantastic images kept coming: a full moon; dancers in huge costumes with ballooning skirts; performers in glittery bright red costumes oozing all over large red cubes; and, finally, the entire cast spread across impressive, multi-tiered bleachers, all directing their bodies to the lead dancer as he kept moving higher and higher.

A scene from “Dongpo: Life in Poems” at The David H. Koch Theater (Photo credit: courtesy of China Art and Entertainment Group Ltd.)

The choreography was repetitious in a meditative way and concentrated on the slow movements of Tai Chi, the popular Chinese slow-motion system of meditation and health.  Shen Wei has total control over the large ensemble and made perfect use of the many sets and exotic costumes.

All the performers were totally in accord with Shen Wei’s movement style and philosophy.

Dongpo: Life in Poems had depth and a universal beauty, raising it above other spectacular shows from China.

Dongpo: Life in Poems (March 15-17, 2024)

China Oriental Performing Arts Group, Ltd and Meishan Song and Dance Theatre, co-presented by American Dance Festival

David H. Koch Theater, 20 Lincoln Center Plaza, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-469-0600 or visit http://www.davidhkochtheater.com

Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Joel Benjamin
About Joel Benjamin (552 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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