Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Happy Holidays from Free China

Traditional Chinese dance, ballet from Swan Lake, an interpretive dance of Falun Gong triumphing over Communist thugs, and Santa—is there anything else you could ask for in a holiday show? NTDTV’s Holiday Wonders show opened at the Beacon Theatre last night (press event covered here), and basically everything but the kitchen sink is thrown in, including a very definite point of view.

The prime motivation behind the new show, Holiday Wonders, and the established Chinese New Year Splendor, is to celebrate and promote the traditional culture of China. This is not without political ramifications, as the Gang of Four did its best to obliterate its artistic and cultural heritage during the Cultural Revolution, and ancient Chinese cultural traditions remain out of step with the priorities of the current regime’s corporate communism. The shows are designed to present positive images of China, distinct from the government’s austere propaganda. And yes, there is the Falun Gong issue too.

While it might be more of a “Happy Holidays” than a “Merry Christmas” kind of holiday show overall, there was a surprising amount of Christmas music with the related trappings. As for the show itself, it truly is a multicultural event, showing respect for both Eastern and Western musical expression. In a departure from the New Year show, there was a conscious effort to incorporate the Western elements, hence the Pas de deux from Swan Lake. Though Anna Liceica and Nilas Martins were very good in the scene from Tchaikovsky, it was the Chinese choreography that remains the real highlight.

“Water Sleeves” for instance, uses its costuming and choreography together to create a water lily effect, with a vibe reminiscent of the “Sugar Plum Fairy” dance. The large production sequences also usually celebrate regional cultural diversity, again in contradiction to the government’s statist policy. “Xinjiang Spirit” derives from the Northwest “Chinese Turkestan” region and “Good Fortune” celebrates the Chinese mountain community of ethnic Koreans in the Changbaishan range. Both are upbeat, spirited numbers, featuring the attractive troupe of dancers.

The entertainment value of flashy percussion is well established, and there are two great examples here. “Drummers of the Tang Court” combines martial precision and percussive power. The finale, “Resounding Drums,” brings back the dance troupe, incorporating shoulder-slung drums with choreography.

Of the Western Associated fare, the Hester Quartet were the standouts, performing a lovely “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” and a cleverly arranged “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The Empire Brass also did a crowd pleasing set of Christmas Carols and popular classical standards. The only significant weakness of the show is the between set banter from the co-hosts, and their comedy bits with Santa Clause. I wanted to rewrite it for them right there in the theater.

However, the one feature that really makes you think “huh, wow,” has to be: “The Power of Awareness.” If you have a problem with Falun Gong, you will not dig this number. We see thuggish communist authorities attack practitioners, including a mother and her daughter, for unfurling a banner with their aphorism: “Truthfulness, Compassion, and Tolerance.” Fortunately, the goons are overcome by other Falun Gong followers in the park. While it did not seem to particularly represent traditional culture, it is entertaining to see the Commies get it for a change. It’s certainly not something you see every day.

Holiday Wonders and the New Year show are affiliated with media outlets sympathetic to Falun Gong and critical of the Communist regime, which colors some critical reaction to the shows. Indeed, Falun Gong cropped up in the lyrics of some of the original songs (translated on-screen behind the soloist) and it obviously shaped the conception of “Awareness.” For the record, nobody was pushing tracts in the lobby.

It is new era, when people can come together to form media outlets to challenge totalitarian governments. Holiday Wonders seems to be an entertainment arm of that overall endeavor. The bottom line is: Wonders is an entertaining show that moves along at a fast pace. It may have its idiosyncrasies, but it is a different and interesting way to spend an evening. It runs through December 26th at the Beacon and the New Year show opens January 30th at Radio City Music Hall.