It has been over a decade since actress Zhang Ziyi enchanted audiences with her explosive Chinese court dance in the hit film, House of Flying Daggers. Pounding the drums with her twenty-foot long sleeves, she captivates the court while resurrecting one of China’s long-lost art forms. Now, the choreographer behind the exquisite scene is bringing court dancing back from the past – only this time with shorter sleeves.
Dream of the Past: Ancient Chinese Court Dances is the latest collaboration between the Beijing Dance Academy and Hong Kong Dance Company, and while the costumes might be more modest than in the movie, director Zheng Lu assures us we can still expect a performance fit for a king.
The multiple-award winning dancer and member of the Academy spent nearly three months working on set with Ziyi to perfect the four-minute scene. Now, she is taking 28 dancers from the Hong Kong Dance Company under her wing as she brings the history of Chinese culture to the Kwai Tsing Theatre Auditorium.
Consisting of eleven different dances from various periods, the performance takes us on a historical journey as far back as the Xia Dynasty in 2,070 to 1,600 BC. Touching on social, religious, and even military aspects of various dynasties, the dances allow the audience to see how Chinese culture has evolved over time.
“Ancient court dances are one of the long-lost treasures of China,” Lu tells Localiiz. “In showing them to a modern audience, we hope to preserve the memory of Chinese culture and allow people to directly understand it. Just as they would discover artifacts in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, or the British Museum in London, they will explore a beautiful art form that China once created. Only this will be more lively.”
With their graceful movements and exquisite costumes, there is no doubt that the show’s dancers will enchant Hong Kongers as much as Zhang Ziyi did the court. But why the long sleeves?
“In ancient China, especially in the south, people used to worship the totem of birds, and believed that humans evolved from them,” Lu explains. “So the long sleeves represent wings, and also draw attention to the movement of the arms, which is central to Chinese dance. The sleeves themselves have evolved over time, so you will see a variety of styles and lengths in the show, such as Spring Excursion, in which the dancers wear shorter sleeves.”
While the dancers may resemble birds, they certainly don’t appear be caged, as they move around freely, expanding outwards into the space around them. Lu likens their movements to the curved eaves of the Forbidden Palace which, unlike the angular rooftops of western cathedrals, flick gracefully outwards. Ballet, she explains, would be more akin to a cathedral, as it focuses more on the legs and upward body movement.
Whatever style of dance they prefer, audience members are certainly in for an entertaining journey through history. Along the way they might be fascinated to discover that King Ling of Chu (who ruled the state between 540 and 529 BC) had an unhealthy obsession with slim waists, which is represented in the Chu-style Waist Dancing.
They might also discover the importance of the moon in worship, as girls dance gracefully under its glow in Rabbit Headdresses. And, if they know this already, then the sight of four men dancing on drums in Drum-top Dance is sure to win them over.
This may all sound rather extravagant, but let’s not forget that this show is directed by the woman behind that epic House of Flying Daggers scene, and for one night only, she wants you to feel like a king.
Dream of the Past is showing from February 26 to 28 at Kwai Tsing Theatre Auditorium, 12 Hing Ning Road, Kwai Chung. Ticket prices range from $80 to $300 and are available at URBTIX. Take a sneak peek and watch the trailer below.