Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

January 8-14, 2004

cover story

Hot Fusion

Not the same old song and dance: With programming like the Philadelphia Chinese Opera Society's Farewell, My Concubine starring Shuyuan Li (center), DanceBoom! is beginning to merge genres and styles.
Not the same old song and dance: With programming like the Philadelphia Chinese Opera Society's Farewell, My Concubine starring Shuyuan Li (center), DanceBoom! is beginning to merge genres and styles.

In its third year, DanceBoom! is more diverse, culturally and stylistically, than ever.

DanceBoom!, the midwinter festival at the Wilma Theater, started out as a sort of reprise of the Fringe Festival, or so people thought. Leave it to wily festival curator (and Fringe co-founder) Nick Stuccio, with an eye wide open to all dance, to confound such formulaic thinking. Last year, flamenco artists and elegant Indian classical dancers joined with the modern experimenters. And in this third year, mixing, or "fusing," might be said to be the theme. Yes, you’ll see important local dance innovators. Melanie Stewart, a reference figure in experimentation, presents Babel, her collaboration with Scottish director Peter Clerke. But look who’s sharing the bill with the Stewart-Clerke dance theater piece -- the Philadelphia Chinese Opera Society. Audiences will be making a theatrical leap spanning centuries. Or will they?

For Stuccio, the invitation to the Chinese group makes perfect producing sense. "As curator," Stuccio says, "it all starts with a territorial interest in common with a responsibility to curate the entire dance community. I have to look at the entire body of dance. All cultures are represented here in this city, all living, working and making art here. It’s just what’s happening." (Juan

Xu, managing director of PCOS, says that they were "not surprised" to be invited, having heard of Stuccio’s wide-ranging interests.) "Plus," Stuccio adds, "the most relevant artists today aren’t doing typical postmodern work; there’s a sort of melding of traditional and modern."

The Philadelphia Chinese Opera Society is a relatively new theater group, only formed in 1999, but it is dedicated to showcasing an ancient national art form. Beijing opera, PCOS’ specialty, is considered the national Chinese opera since it incorporates elements from other provinces, where different languages and opera performing traditions exist. Beijing opera carries none of the stuffed-shirt connotation of much Western opera. For centuries it’s been a people’s art form with a rich mix of music, dancing, acting, martial arts, gorgeous costumes and stories from history and legend. During the Cultural Revolution in China, Xu notes, "Beijing opera was reshaped and began to incorporate modern themes, more modern staging and even to use the music in the same way as a modern orchestra, but we here stick to the old form."

Farewell My Concubine, the PCOS DanceBoom! contribution, takes us beyond such recent political flag-waving back to the tale of a Chinese king around 220 B.C. Several warrior kings are fighting to become supreme ruler. A beautiful woman loves one of these kings, and for very complicated reasons (involving honor) she must send him away. To ensure that he leaves, she kills herself. Her famous sword dance, the highlight of PCOS' shortened version of this classic, will be performed by Shuyuan Li, a fourth-generation artist in this tradition. Li's father was considered such an influential performer in Beijing opera that his name was given to a performing style (the Li School). Having Li in Philadelphia at the center of the Chinese Opera Society gave immediate artistic gravitas to the fledgling outfit, and she is unquestionably their star.

Xu comments, "Miss Li is an artist of extraordinary ability, both as a dancer and in interpretive storytelling. When she is dancing with the sword, she is trying to cheer up the king, but she knows she is going to kill herself." This will be a "real dance," Xu continues, "but if you move with swords you use some of the techniques and moves of, say, tai chi swords. Chinese have pretty much incorporated martial arts movement into theater, but this is first of all a dance. It just incorporates martial arts." Originally, the concubine would have been danced by a man, wearing stilt-like shoes so he could mimic the sliding movements of a woman’s bound feet. Female artists joined the Beijing opera casts over a hundred years ago, although no longer with bound feet; now the tiny gliding movements are dance technique.

"The trend is," Stuccio emphasizes, "fusing a traditional framework in modern practice. The idea of fusing is a recurring theme in all this work." So you won't be surprised over the three-week festival to find Roko Kawai continuing her fascinating dance examination of her own Japanese background while remaining a modern experimenter in this year's mix -- or noting that both Headlong Dance Theater and Group Motion have Asian collaborators. D. Sabela Grimes' first language is hip-hop, but he's fusing his own musical accompaniment and text into original movement. The African-American gay male literary scene in Philadelphia provides Charles O. Anderson's inspiration. And Subcircle's showing a dance created between Philadelphia and Germany, while Dancefusion remounts legendary Anna Sokolow's response to the Vietnam War.

"The self-conscious concept of multiculturalism is sort of fading away," says Stuccio, adding, "we're living it."

And for three glorious weeks in January and February, dancing it.

The Philadelphia Chinese Opera Society will perform Jan. 22 and 24, 8 p.m.; Jan. 25 and 31 and Feb. 1, 2 p.m., $20, Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St., 215-546-7824. DanceBoom! runs Jan. 21-Feb. 8.

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