Explore some of the modern culture and 20th-century history, the music and movement, of the world’s most populous country, China. Take in a full-scale epic tale, full of pageantry and a youthful love, arriving at the Kennedy Center for one of its few stops in America. Take the opportunity to have a grand experience with the distinctive Chinese style of artistic expression and cultural aesthetic.
The production is Image China: Dragon Boat Racing, an award-winning music and movement show from the Guangdong Song & Dance Ensemble of South China. Guangdong province is located in the southern part of China.
In a phone interview with Winston Wang, Deputy Director, China Arts & Entertainment, I learned that Image China: Dragon Boat Racing is a China Performing Arts Agency cultural exchange initiative. It is part of a program to introduce traditional and contemporary Chinese performing arts to American and world audiences. (In January 2017, The Kennedy Center had a production of Confucius from Image China). The touring production of Dragon Boat Racing aims to provide global audiences with a peek into the singular Chinese national style of theater. There will be four performances of Dragon Boat Racing at the Kennedy Center.
Since its inception in 2009, Image China has presented works at venues across the globe, including Lincoln Center in New York and the Kennedy Center. As I learned from Wang, the Kennedy Center and New York City’s Lincoln Center are considered the most prestigious performing arts venues in the United States by Chinese touring companies.
Wang indicated that a production such as Dragon Boat Racing, aims “to be a bridge of cultural exchange.” For those less familiar with the China of today and its rich, long cultural heritage, the production can also provide a view of critical Chinese history. “Understanding of the Mandarin language is unnecessary to enjoy Dragon Boat Racing,” noted Wang. There is no spoken dialogue in the show. Rather the dance-drama is propelled by movement, dance and music including percussion. Its visual presence and effect on the audience also comes from its large cast with 50 dancers, dazzling sets and spectacular costumes, according to Wang.
So, what is a dragon boat? And why racing of the dragon boats? A dragon boat is an over 2000-year-old tradition. It is a human-powered watercraft rigged out with decorative regalia such as Chinese dragon heads and tails. Dragon boat racing is not limited to China and Asia – a quick internet search finds many such races here in the United States (including Washington, DC) during the summer months.
Dragon Boat Racing as a performance is set in 1930s China, a critical period in modern Chinese history. It is set against the backdrop of the Japanese occupation of China during that time period. Dragon Boat Racing follows two young lovers whose passion for each other is equaled by their passion for music. The musical drama also focuses on one of the most iconic Cantonese (South China) musical compositions.
Created and first performed in 2014, Dragon Boat Racing received the prestigious Wenhua Award from the Chinese government, recognizing the highest level of staged performing arts productions in the country. The award was presented by the Ministry of Culture.
In the interview, Wang noted that Dragon Boat Racing has a cast of 50 talented dancers performing uniquely blended Chinese choreography and ballet developed by a new, younger generation of Chinese artists. Wang described the production’s costumes as “colorful and eye-catching, while the state-of-the-art set is terrific.” The performance is expected to have a running time of about 2 hours with an intermission.
Inviting audiences to the performances at The Kennedy Center, Wang wanted them to that know that, “we hope American audiences will learn about China today. To come to know China not just of the past” and not what they may have thought about China. With Dragon Boat Racing, audiences will have the opportunity to be “entertained, enlightened and enchanted. And to come to know the universal values that we share in common through the arts.”