Shanghai Song and Dance Ensemble
by George Jackson
This troupe is misnamed! There's no singing, just a bit of chanting here and there and warrior calls. The group ought to be dubbed China Riverdance. There's the same trashing of tradition as by those Irish steppers whose hard-hitting thrusts distort and exploit their nation's dance heritage. And, like Riverdance, these Shanghai lads and lasses are precision drilled. The big difference is that Shanghai S & D processes material that's of aristocratic taste and uses folk-derived dances only secondarily. Scenes start out as elegant apparitions, spookily still before being given a treatment that turns straightforward dancing into movement soundbites and overwhelms the costumes' subtle tints with lighting that becomes garish.
The program's first part, the "Symbols of China" suite, opened with a group of performers posed as the Terra Cotta Warriors. They came to life as frightening fighters, faces like masks compared to those on the actual statues. In "Sleeves", each dancer had one enormously long sleeve that was used for a sleek ribbon dance. There was none of the fun that the moderately too-long sleeves of China's heirloom gowns give rise to. "Spirit of Martial Arts" revisited the threats of the revived terra cotta fighters, and "Chinese GO" seemed based on moves in the ancient board game. In each case, the motion theme was stated very emphatically, and then repeated with little variation or development.
Unassailable, though, was the performers' skill in their amalgam of acrobatics, ballet, plastique and soldiering arts. The newest part of the program, "Six Dance Imageries from the Zhou Dynasty" was performed against a huge sculptural assemblage of bronze bells. There were great ones and small ones on wooden racks, and the dignified members of the Hubei Imperial Bronze Bell Ensemble used mallets and hammers to ring the array. While playing the bells, the musicians sometimes faced them and sometimes faced away, hitting backwards with their implements. Their manner had authenticity.
The dancing, choreographed by Doudou Huang, the company's director and star, was unsubtle and slick. It began with a very long bare-chested solo for himself, followed by variations for small teams of dancers. Huang is a remarkable contortionist who could be, but isn't, an artist as a dancer. On stage, he's a hardened showman.
The middle work on the program was a small collection of Chinese folk dances in glitzy renderings. Sitting in the audience, bravoing, was Jacques d'Amboise, former New York City Ballet star, whose US National Dance Institute in 2004 gave a joint Shanghai performance with Doudou Huang's troupe.
Class with Doudou Huang
Much of the long class that the Shanghai dance star and director gave to local students was ballet based. He linked steps logically, gave phrases distinct dynamics and built passages that could be read as choreography. Many of his combinations were purely classical but when he introduced other movement into the vocabulary it was done sensitively so that the dancing acquired a different tint without its inherent nature suffering distortions. During questioning after class, Mr. Huang remarked that he wouldn't put his classroom combinations on stage. Pity! In the armamentarium of our great ballet choreographers has been the abilty to take movement from other dance forms and even daily life and use it not just for contrast but make it classical. - George Jackson
Volume 3, No. 39