Review by David Walters
I’ll try to refrain from using the word beautiful too much in this review. It will be difficult, but let’s see how I do.
Princess Zhaojun is beautiful directing that creates beautiful stage pictures at every moment of the show; the costumes are beautiful; the choreography is beautiful; the dancers are beautiful; the lighting is beautiful, all coming together to create an extravagantly beautiful event.
Oops, I guess I didn’t do too well (sounded a bit like the emcee from Cabaret though).
Princess Zhaojun, presented by China Arts and Entertainment Group (CAEG), is an epic dance theatre piece on a truly magnificent scale at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center. It is told in four acts with a prologue and an epilogue, recounting the story of Wang Zhaojun, considered one of the four beauties of Ancient China, who volunteered to leave the world she knew at the emperor’s court in order to marry and devote herself to achieving peace in the contested lands.
Kong Dexin, the director/choreographer, focuses the story on Wang’s inner life of feelings and emotions as she makes life choices that will affect the future of China.
Kong’s approach to the story was to use her personal female instincts to understand Wang and her courage and says she was dedicated to, “Stripping all the historic exaggeration and cultural symbols from Wang’s story. We wanted to preserve her determination to fight against her fate, which also reflects our (China’s) aspirations today.”
The piece begins in the Northern border with bodies scattered across the stage illustrating the destructiveness of the bitter fighting between two opposing powers.
During the Han Dynasty, the Xiongnu peoples were constant invaders of the territory that today stands as China’s Inner Mongolia region and at that time stood as the northern border to the kingdom. During the period of Emperor Yuan (49BC-33BC), Huhanye Chanyu, monarch of the Xiongnu, expressed his wish to establish friendlier relations with the Han Dynasty and end the constant border battles.
Emperor Yuan concurred and as a goodwill gesture to establish peace with Huhanye he offers Wang’s hand in marriage.
Several highlights of the evening:
The Han soldiers, led by General Wei Jiang, and the Xiongnu soldiers, led by Prince Fujulei, have a dance off to exhibit their prowess. The dance duet between the Prince and the General is strong and aggressive, dominated by the General and leaving a bitter taste in the Prince’s mouth (to be acted upon later in the piece). When Wang Zhaojun appears, in a fabulous dress I must say, her beauty draws everyone’s full attention and Huhanye falls immediately in love with her (read her back story here to find out why the emperor didn’t recognize her beauty until it was too late).
During the journey to the Xiongnu lands in the second act, she falls deeply in love with Huhanye and a deep partnership blossoms that would be a guiding light for the rest of Wang’s life. When she sleeps, a fog envelops the stage and she dreams of her previous life and what her future would become and the responsibilities she will need to shoulder in order to bring peace to China.
Years later when Huhanye dies, there is a mesmerizing and haunting dance duet between the monarch and Wang that is ghostly in its presentation, allowing the characters to touchingly flow between the two worlds of life and death before they depart for the last time.
The dancer portraying Princess Zhaojun (no dancer names listed in the program) is powerful and striking in her movements and captivating in her personality as she carries her role with a graceful gravity.
Princess Zhaojun had its world premiere in 2016 and is part of CAEG’s Image China cultural exchange initiative which seeks to introduce traditional and contemporary Chinese performing arts to audiences around the world and will run in New York March 21-24.
Running time: approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.
The production is directed and choreographed by Ms. Kong Dexin (a 77th-generation direct descendant of Confucius) written by Yu Ping, and composed by Zhang Qu.
The cast of Princess Zhaojun includes over 50 dancers, with scenic and lighting design by Ren Dongsheng, costume design by Yang Donglin, and style design by Sun Aina.