One of the most amazing things in this eye-popping production happened after the show ended.
The audience at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts stood and applauded for more than ten minutes as the curtain fell and ascended repeatedly, revealing the six leads and 38 dancers.
In the dark, ignoring the printed admonition in their Playbill, several hundred audience members whipped out their cell phones and held them high, capturing the look of joy on the faces of the large cast.
The audience’s enthusiastic response speaks volumes – louder than a solitary critic, but I’ll try.
The Guangdong Song & Dance Ensemble debuted Image China: Dragon Boat Racing in 2014 in their home country, to great acclaim and captured top awards in China. It was first presented in the U.S. in 2016 at the Lincoln Center’s David Koch Theater in Manhattan. Dragon Boat Racing depicts the “backstory” of how a classic Cantonese musical composition captured the hearts and imaginations of more than a billion people.
The show is part of a cultural initiative that introduces traditional and contemporary Chinese performing arts to audiences around the world.
The show’s producer and artistic director is Xiong Jian, himself an actor, and the playwright is Tang Dong. The two female choreographer-directors are Zhou Liya and Han Zhen. Du Ming composed the show’s lush, vibrant, nearly non-stop pre-recorded and live music. Qin Liyun and Ma Jun were responsible for the handsome, innovative scenic design. Liu Fengshu and Qin Nianfeng created the lighting design. The hundreds of costumes are the designs of Yang Donglin, and style design by Jia Lei.
There is no translator or translation provided and none is needed. The cast emotes through facial expressions, mimed gestures, emotional dances and the occasional heart-breaking sob or howl. Though billed as a “dance drama,” this isn’t a genteel Chinese ballet version of The Nutcracker. The dances are a blend of ballet, acrobatics, gymnastics and daredevil moves that would put most of us in the hospital. Yet, despite limbs that stretch, bend and curve into unimaginable positions — then fly into the air, the dancers are graceful, elegant and have nary a hair or false eyelash out of place.
The show is about pageantry; bold, stirring dance scenes; gorgeous costumes, and rich, lushly orchestrated music that blends Cantonese music with Western stylings. It is also about quiet moments, heartbreak, rejection, plus the occupation and atrocities committed by an invading army of Japanese soldiers.
The setting is an ancient town in south China, Shawan, Guangdong in the late 1930s. Japanese soldiers have taken over large sections of China and are advancing south. Two young music-lovers with modern attitudes He Liunian (or “Nian” portrayed by Li Xing) and Xu Chunling (“Ling” by Li Yanchao) are quietly affectionate. Nian presents Ling with a Gaohu, a Chinese bow stringed instrument that was developed in the 1920s. It is a symbol of their love for each other.
However, before his death, Nian’s father had asked Nian to marry the more traditional, subservient Pan Hongying (Ying by Wang Minnrui) instead and requests he finishes a composition called “Dragon Boat Racing.” Though Ying loves Nian, she does not understand his passion for music.
Dragon boat racing is a sport of sorts. Humans paddle in boats decorated on the bow with a dragon’s head, and on the stern with a scaly tail – sort of a dressed-up crew team. There are several dragon boat race teams in the Baltimore-Washington-Annapolis-Eastern Shore area. In China, dragon boat racing has a history stretching back several millennia.
And the music? Aided by the Kennedy Center’s sterling sound system, the recorded music wraps around the audience and the live drumming onstage is magical.
Li Xing as Nian is the uncontested star of the show, and is in possession of jaw-dropping dance and drumming skills. His character beams confidence, strength and agility, yet struggles to finish his symphonic musical composition. He often clasps sheets of parchment paper to his chest while seeking inspiration.
Through the production’s plot twists and unexpected turns, the polished and near perfect cast perform precision dances onstage that a big screen YouTube video cannot convey. The choreographers have combined the moves of the Rockettes, a military drill team and the Bolshoi Ballet with a heavy dose of Cantonese charm and Chinese traditions.
The show’s creative sets are amazing works of art, notable for their versatility and the swiftness with which they change from scene to scene.
The set is primarily composed of a dozen or more long narrow panels suspended from metal arms that move along tracks set high in the stage ceiling. The framed panels feature filigreed metal headers and footers. One side of each panel resembles the stylized rosette pattern of a Chinese folding screen room divider – only about 25 feet tall. The other side is screen painted with a brick wall pattern. Lit one way, these panels resemble solid walls. Lit another way, they are nearly transparent. The panels are moved rapidly and silently to form walls, rooms, dividers, and houses. A panel will open like a door to reveal hidden cast members or a small tableau.
The Lunar New Year, the Year of the Dog, starts this month on February 16. There’s no better way to begin your celebration of this fun, Asian New Year than seeing Image China: Dragon Boat Racing.
Running Time: Two hours, including a 15-minute intermission.
Parking inside the JFK Center is $23. The price is $16 at the Watergate garage, across the street.