Beijing Dance Theater’s “Wild Grass” inspired by work of Chinese poet

SHARE Beijing Dance Theater’s “Wild Grass” inspired by work of Chinese poet


When: Oct. 28 and 29 at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph

Tickets: $10 – $65

Info: (312) 334-7777;

Run time: 100 minutes

Her name — Wang Yuanyuan — might not be immediately recognizable outside of China, yet her choreography has already been cheered by tens of millions around the globe. That is because Wang established herself as a major force on the international dance scene following her collaboration with film director Zhang Yimou on the creation of the spectacular opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

But as founder and artistic director of the Beijing Dance Theater, Wang also works on a far more intimate scale. And this week — Oct. 28 and 29 at 7:30 p.m.  at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance — her company, which she established in 2008, together with visual artists Tan Shao Yuan and Han Jiang —will receive its Chicago debut. On display will be her newest work, “Wild Grass,”  co-produced here by the Harris and the Dance Center of Columbia College.

Inspired by the writing of Chinese poet and literary giant Lu Xun (1881–1936) — a master of irony whose personal, artistic and political life are as complex as 20th century Chinese history itself (the Wikipedia entry about him reads like a novel) – “Wild Grass” arrives at the Harris on the heels of engagements at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

The 100-minute piece, featuring a total of 17 dancers, is designed to evoke notions of growth, decay and rebirth. It unfolds in three distinct movements and draws loosely on a 1927 work by Lu Xun, who is known for his complexity and use of intricate metaphors. (Although Chairman Mao was a big admirer of Lu Xun’s work, he never became a member of he Communist Party and there is still great debate about whether Lu Xun would have faced persecution, or even survived under Mao’s regime, had he actually lived under it.)

The dance’s first section, “Dead Fire,” set to music by Su Cong (the Oscar-winning composer of the score for Bernardo Bertolucci’s film, “The Last Emperor”) suggests a cold world, with an iceberg and yellow moon. Its second section, “Farewell, Shadows” (set to a score with techno grooves, specially commissioned for the piece), features a power struggle between men and women, the latter displaying an almost robotic quality. And its final section, “Dance of Extremity,” captures the sense of the environment’s power over human beings, and suggests a line from Lu Xun’s writing: “In silence I feel full, with speech I sense emptiness.”

The Beijing Dance Theater is the first dance theater in China to combine ballet with modern dance. Wang herself  began dance training at the age of 10 and eventually studied choreography at the Beijing Dance Academy, where she later served as a teacher. In 1998, she was named resident choreographer of the National Ballet of China and staged many full-length works including a Chinese version of “The Nutcracker.” She later choreographed a ballet version of “Raise the Red Lantern” for film director Yimou. Between 2000 and 2002, she earned a Master of Fine Arts at the California Institute of Arts (Cal Arts) School of Dance in Los Angeles.

Following is a brief interview conducted with Wang through a translator:

Q: When did modern dance, as we know it in the West, first come to China?

A: It really only became introduced in China in the 1980s. My teacher was part of the first generation to study modern dance; until then it was only classical ballet and traditional Chinese folk dance.

Q: Which modern dance choreographers influenced you most?

A: In the beginning I was looking for my own style, so I can’t really name any particular influences. But more recently I can say that Jiri Kylian [the influential longtime artistic director of the Nederlands Dance Theater, whose work is a major component of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago] has become my idol. And of course the pioneer, Martha Graham.

Q: How do you blend poetry and modern dance?

A: Mostly I used Lu Xun’s poetry to give me images of what the stage could look like. The text itself is not so important. It’s the spirit I find between the lines.

Q: Did you study the writing of Lu Xun in school?

A: In my generation, these texts were not taught in school. Lu Xun’s work has gradually been taken away from the curriculum. He was a critic of the government in many ways in the earlier part of the 20th century. Now the meaning of his work is difficult to interpret in many ways.

Q: How do you make the switch from the gargantuan Olympics stage to the relatively small concert stage?

A: I see my work in the Olympics as being the smallest thing in the biggest work I have ever choreographed. And I see the work I do for my company as the biggest thing on the smallest stage. I am really most proud of my company. The Olympics was just one  moment in my career.

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