It’s midday on a chilly January morning at the Hong Kong Dance Company and twelve female dancers are twirling intently on small Chinese drums. At the front of the large mirrored rehearsal space stands their teacher, stick in hand.
When the teacher brings her stick to the floor, the dancers twirl. Bang. Twirl. Bang. Twirl. Bang. Twirl.
If a dancer loses her footing, she snatches her toes back from the floor like it’s scolding water. When the stick quiets, the girls climb back onto the drums and re-position. Legs are bent at the knees. Arms are raised and poised, as willowy as winter branches. They wait.
These are the beginnings of a new showcase by the Hong Kong Dance Company in partnership with the Classical Dance Department of Beijing’s prestigious Dance Academy. “Dreams of the Past, Ancient Chinese Court Dances” resurrects traditional Chinese dance forms dating back several thousand years.
The show, which promises to be a brightly costumed, artistic extravaganza, has been adapted from academic pieces restored by the late Beijing Dance Academy choreographer Sun Ying. Following a few initial rehearsals, intensive practice for the show began this month, in preparation for performances from February 26 to 28. But resurrecting the dances goes back as far as the 1950s.
Sun, a choreographer and dedicated scholar of Chinese history, spent half a lifetime retracing these almost forgotten steps in order to bring them back to the stage. Many of the dances he uncovered – including those that will be performed by HKDC – originated during the Qin, Han, Tang and Song dynasties, most often in the imperial courts. Although entertainers were frequently called upon to perform at court, so too were royal figures and their guests. Traditionally, hosts danced first before inviting their guests to entertain. To refuse such an offer would have been considered rude beyond belief.
In Ancient China, dance training for nobles began at court from the age of about five, was demanding from the start and required immense practice. Other dancers came from families of troupes and were expected to carry on the tradition, while some dance teachers adopted orphans and groomed them. With the ability to dance well came the chance to improve ones’ social standing, and talent was a much desired as beauty. “It’s no surprise that many of China’s queens were exquisite dancers,” says Zheng Lu, director of Classical Dance at the Beijing Dance Academy.
Over the years, Sun pieced together dances through snippets of information. Literary texts and old artworks offered clues. Excavations brought forth more revealing relics. The moving rhythmic drum dances were once called tread dancing, and were common during the times of the Han but then seemed to disappear. Images of the dances were uncovered at remains in Hubei and Qinhuai regions, and retraced via ethic minorities still performing some versions.
Another of Sun’s choreographies is the pre-Qin period “Chu-style waist dancing,” which developed under Chu Ling Wang, king of the Chu Kingdom. This monarch favoured girls with slim waists and so the costumes and movements accentuate the hips, drawing the observer’s eye to the dancer’s waist. Historical information about Chu culture came from bronze drums found near Hunan and Guangxi.
Reconstructing a dance requires imagination as well as information. “We work on two levels,” says Zheng, who has continued Sun’s work since the choreographer passed away in 2009. “One is to study people and their lifestyles, their culture and social background to understand the actions they might make, the other is through archaeology, the study of historic buildings, drawings and pictures.”
“You can use a tooth as a metaphor,” Zheng adds. If you lose a tooth, it’s impossible to fit a new one without contemplating the gum, the space and the surrounding teeth, she says. Her job is filling gaps.
For centuries, dances were passed down through generations, adapting, morphing, evolving and weaving themselves into the fabric of China’s development. Changes of costumes most clearly depict the historical advancement from dynasty to dynasty, but the sense and style of the movements change too. Dances from the Tang dynasty, a time when China was at its most prosperous, economically and artistically, are showy displays, with large, confident movements. As the country grew accustomed to a rare period of peace, court performances grew lavish, drawing thousands upon thousands of spectators. One text puts audience numbers at 300,000. By the time of the Song, when the arts were flourishing further, dances took on a gentler, poetic nature.
They were informed by everything surrounding them. In one Song era dance simply called “Rabbit Headdresses,” dancers in rabbit ears bathed in moonlight performing a tribute to the moon goddess. “Imperial Guards,” by contrast, is a feisty masculine piece about Han palace guards. Even architecture had influence, Lu says. Europe’s ballet is long and lean, more like Western churches, she says, while movements in Chinese dance are circular and broad, similar to the stout, robust temples found in China.
Chinese dance has always borrowed widely. It took from philosophy and demonstrated the concepts of yin and yang, again in those circular moves. It took from the spiritual rituals of shamans convening with higher powers. It took movements from the flips and tumbles of circus acrobats. And it took the bold battlefield defence of martial artists. And as it interpreted the stories of the philosopher, the shaman, the acrobat, and the army it imbued them with an artistic sense and blossomed into a cultural art form.
And then dance grew – and all but disappeared. By the Song dynasty, with instruments and song, dance evolved out of the courts and into an opera for the people. As courts disbanded, music stopped and traditional dancers hung up their shoes or moved into operatic roles. Later still, performers became comrades marching to the beat of an entirely different drum.
As much as these cultural treasures were windows into the past, reflecting the times with as much authority as an ancient temple, a scroll of calligraphy, an artwork or poem, they were immensely harder to retain.
“Dance? It’s a moment,” says Zheng. “It is danced and then it is gone.”
Except that now, of course, it isn’t.
“Dream of the Past: Ancient Chinese Court Dances” runs from February 26 to 28, 2016 at the Kwai Tsing Theatre, 12 Hing Ning Road, Kwai Chung. Click here for more information. Tickets available at Urbtix