BWW Dance Review: Shanghai Dance Theatre Presents the American Premiere of SOARING WINGS at Lincoln Center
The Shanghai Dance Theatre premiered its full-length dance drama SOARING WINGS at Lincoln Center on January 5, 2018. Telling the story of the crested ibis, a rare bird, the visually exquisite piece calls for sustainable development and makes the point that nature and human beings are interdependent.
Part of the China Arts and Entertainment Group (CAEG) cultural exchange initiative, SOARING WINGS certainly brings to mind SWAN LAKE, but the contemporary choreography with Chinese classical dance at its core is not performed en pointe. There are occasional flexed feet and unconventional but fascinating lifts. The scene in which the ibis dies isn't pretty. The bird, as portrayed by principal dancer and assistant artistic supervisor Zhu Jiejing, writhes and convulses in realistic pain.
SOARING WINGS is an example of artists working together seamlessly to create a visual feast for the audience. Stage Designer Zhang Jiwen created backdrops and scrims that look like Chinese landscape paintings, while including tree set pieces that work brilliantly with the lighting design by Xing Xin. The same is true of the interaction between the lighting and the costume designs by Zhong Jiani.
Jiani evokes the birds mostly with fabric rather than feathers, some of which is done with a large drape of white fabric held by each dancer's outstretched arms. The fabric was chosen for its ability to flutter like wings and capture shadows from the tree set pieces and Xin's ingenious lighting. There were moments when I actually gasped from the sheer beauty of it.
Since the crested ibis has red feet, the dancers portraying the birds also wear shoes that have been partially dyed red. The sheer, orange-red fabric under the white fabric of their skirts is much like the under-feathers of the ibis.
As an avid international bird watcher, I can attest that director/choreographer Tong Ruirui spent considerable time researching bird movement. While she occasionally uses fluttering arms and hands to evoke feathers as in SWAN LAKE, she primarily uses the dancers' heads, shoulders, hips, and legs in a playful way to make them appear like birds. The result is charming, especially when the chorus dances as a whole. A couple of times, they undulate together in a row, which made me think of murmurations, a phenomenon in which a flock of birds creates shapes in the sky as they follow each other in flight.
Then, there is the original Chinese orchestral score by Guo Sida, which is dark when the birds' fate is dire, and emotionally ecstatic when the dancers playing humans appreciate the magnificence of nature.
At one point, the dancers playing birds are sprawled out dead on tree limbs in a shocking display of carnage. In a museum scene toward the end, what look like real stuffed birds are placed in glass cases. In the center is principal dancer Zhu Jiejing in the crested ibis pose we've come to know throughout the performance - also in a glass case. It sent home to me the fact that the stuffed birds we see in museums aren't merely representatives of their species, but individuals who, just like people, had a life.
Male principal dancer Wang Jiajun plays a human who loves the birds. He shows us the pain of his loss, but by passing along the ibis feather to young people in the museum, he lets them know the importance of preserving nature. And we're left with a message of hope.
In Chinese culture, the crested ibis is called "the bird of good fortune," but industrialization turned the bird into an endangered species in the 20th century. In 1981, Chinese scientists discovered seven wild crested ibises and worked to increase their population. The story for SOARING WINGS, written by playwright Luo Huaizhen, is based on this true history.
SOARING WINGS continues through January 7, 2018 at Lincoln Center and then moves on to Boston.