China Oriental Performing Arts Group & Meishan Song and Dance Theatre
David H. Koch Theater
Lincoln Center
New York, New York 

March 15, 2024
Dongpo: Life in Poems

Jerry Hochman

In any dance/theater production by a company based in China with the expectation that it will be presented world-wide, one can count on it displaying extraordinary regimentation: every movement is imposed and executed by the dancers as if their performance lives depended on it. On the other hand, one can also count on such productions being exceptionally opulent, as if opulence alone was a mandatory statement that was essential to communicate.

Those qualities are apparent from the outset in Dungpo: Life in Poems, presented by the China Arts and Entertainment Group (and co-presented by the American Dance Festival), which had its New York premiere at Lincoln Center’s Koch Theater in a limited engagement this past weekend following a similar limited engagement at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. the previous week. The significance of this piece to the image of Chinese culture that China presents to the world is obvious (it’s part of a program with the umbrella title: “Image: China”), and the time, talent, financial resources, and energy that were spent creating it would seem to be the cultural equivalent of a trip to the moon. Failure – anything less than being regarded as an extraordinary work of art – was not an option.

China Oriental Performing Arts Group
& Meishan Song and Dance Theatre
in Shen Wei’s “Dongpo: Life in Poems”
Photo Courtesy of China Arts and Entertainment Group

But, aside from political considerations (which should be irrelevant anyway), the effort worked. Regimented or not; opulent or not; Dungpo: Life in Poems is an extraordinary work of art. The regimentation is not only apparent, it’s an essential artistic ingredient in the presentation. And its opulence is similarly essential to the production; nothing is over-the-top; nothing is superfluous. Both are components of a production that is, as it describes itself, a dance opera. It’s so visually impressive in its staging, sets, and execution that watching it alone, without dwelling on the enormous efforts that must have been required to create it, is a thrilling visual adventure.

The production was created, designed (costumes, make-up, hair, and stage and visual), co-written, and choreographed by Shen Wei, an award-winning (including the MacArthur Genius Award) internationally recognized dance and visual artist and filmmaker whose biography in the program occupies more than an entire page.  He was aided by similarly talented creative artists, including (but not limited to) composer Chen Qigang, playwright Guo Changhong, lighting designer Xiao Lihe, calligraphy and seal engraver Yan Tao, acoustic designer Sun Chaojun, and a musician, Zhao Xiaoxia, who occasionally provided live accompaniment to some of the music (called “Guqin Pieces”) on what appeared to be a keyboard or plucked instrument that isn’t named in the program, that sounded something like a combination xylophone and sitar.

Zhao Xiaoxia
in Shen Wei’s “Dongpo: Life in Poems”
Photo Courtesy of China Arts and Entertainment Group

One could nickel and dime Dongpo: Life in Poems to death with critiques of its choreography (with one exception, most everything is essentially the same – just with different variations and costumes in each segment); its annoying lack of specificity with respect to the musical, visual, and literary (poetry) reference points that are used to anchor the various scenes; the absence of a coherent narrative; and the visual treatment of its dancers as mere cogs in a machine. But doing so would undermine the production’s undeniable beauty and, I believe, its artistic sincerity. Although I’ll elaborate on some of these concerns below, in the end none of them really matter: the production accomplishes what it intends to accomplish in a highly entertaining way.

Dongpo: Life in Poems tells the story, via visualized poetry reference points, of the life of Dongpo, an eleventh century Chinese poet who is still venerated as the greatest of Chinese poets. However, telling the story of the life of this venerated eleventh century figure would require … the length of time it might take to reach the moon. So, as I’ll explain below, it’s been compressed into bite-sized theatrical nuggets.

China Oriental Performing Arts Group
& Meishan Song and Dance Theatre
in Shen Wei’s “Dongpo: Life in Poems”
Photo Courtesy of China Arts and Entertainment Group

Dongpo is the “artistic name” of Su Shi (1037-1101), who was something of a Renaissance man before there was a Renaissance: he reportedly was a poet, essayist, statesman, calligrapher, painter, gastronome (Dongpo pork is named after him), travel writer, and sometime politician. And that may just scratch the surface.

According to his Wikipedia entry, Su had a lengthy career as a bureaucrat, taking a variety of provincial posts and serving in the Imperial Court during the Song Dynasty. His criticism of various political rivals led to multiple exiles, during which, contrary to what might be expected, his creativity reportedly flourished. [Early in the piece a map is projected onto which paths of travel are traced from one location to another to another, representing Dongpo’s various stopping points/ “homes.” These pathways, when the diagram was completed, encompassed a large area of China.] He “is widely regarded as one of the most accomplished figures in classical Chinese literature, leaving behind him a prolific collection of poems, lyrics, prose, and essays. His poetry had enduring popularity and influence in China, Japan, and other areas in the near vicinity and is well known in some English-speaking countries through translations…[and he’s been described as] one of the preeminent personalities of the Eleventh Century.” [Quoted from a footnoted Wikipedia entry.]

China Oriental Performing Arts Group
& Meishan Song and Dance Theatre
in Shen Wei’s “Dongpo: Life in Poems”
Photo Courtesy of China Arts and Entertainment Group

Su Shi’s personal life was … complicated. [Some things never change.]

Su had three wives. His first wife, Wang Fu (1039-1065), was sixteen when they married (making Su approximately eighteen), with the marriage lasting some ten years until her death. Reportedly, Su was brokenhearted by her death, and even though he remarried two years later (to Wang Fu’s cousin Wang Runzhi), he wrote a poem to Wang Fu’s memory ten years after her death after dreaming of her, that, according to the same Wikipedia entry, remains one of his most famous poems. [And it’s one that is a reference point in this production.]

China Oriental Performing Arts Group
& Meishan Song and Dance Theatre
in Shen Wei’s “Dongpo: Life in Poems”
Photo Courtesy of China Arts and Entertainment Group

When his second wife died in 1093 after twenty-five years of marriage, Su again reportedly was overwhelmed with grief and expressed a desire to be buried with her when he died. At some point thereafter he married Wang Zhaoyun, who reportedly was an eleven year-old “Singing Girl” when Su “bought her.” She became the most famous of Su’s wives (initially, it appears, considered a concubine), and Su dedicated many of his poems to her. He apparently loved all of them.

He also apparently loved all the various places in which he lived and through which he traveled, reflecting in his poetry the beauty he found in whatever environment he was in.

China Oriental Performing Arts Group
& Meishan Song and Dance Theatre
in Shen Wei’s “Dongpo: Life in Poems”
Photo Courtesy of China Arts and Entertainment Group

The distillation of Dongpo’s life that Shen Wei created here is couched in emotional/ visual ambiance that might be summarized as Dongpo’s ability to observe, love, feel, relate to, and connect (and reconnect) with the world around him and people in it – which of course isn’t a distillation at all. And it’s accomplished through theatrically illuminated presentations from six of his many poems – which seems laughably insufficient.

But while each poem addresses something in particular, the six poems are also expansive enough to communicate some generalized emotion that provides sufficient insight into Dongpo’s personal character, personal observations, and personal life in general to allow Shen Wei and his production team to create a series of beautiful moving images that illustrate stages in Dongpo’s continuing search for connection or reconnection with … whatever he’s observing or feeling at the moment, whether real or a dream. If you focus on specifics of meaning, or limit its breadth it to certain poems in isolation, you lose the impact of the piece as a whole.

China Oriental Performing Arts Group
& Meishan Song and Dance Theatre
in Shen Wei’s “Dongpo: Life in Poems”
Photo Courtesy of China Arts and Entertainment Group

I’ll try below to make some sort of narrative sense of the production’s trajectory, but that’s not an easy task – mostly because the primary consideration here is emotional visualization rather than any straight-line narrative path.

As they walk into the theater, the audience sees an intriguing, stage-spanning scrim that doesn’t appear to represent anything in particular except some generalized mature emotional state. I say “mature,” because there’s something weighty about it, as if it represents years of accumulated memory. The scrim (apparently a painting on the scrim) is not identified. [It may have been part of the program’s listing of paintings, but entries in it are not correlated to appearance points in the production.]

When the performance begins, the audience sees, through the scrim, a bare-chested older-looking man climbing upward, as if making his way toward heaven via cloud-like steps. He stops within something resembling an open oval about 2/3 of the way above the stage floor, and stands relatively immobile while moving his upper torso, arms, and head in a way that suggests that he’s searching for something. Then that image goes black, and the dance part of the piece begins.

China Oriental Performing Arts Group
& Meishan Song and Dance Theatre
in Shen Wei’s “Dongpo: Life in Poems”
Photo Courtesy of China Arts and Entertainment Group

I took this image for what it was, and no more than that. But in hindsight, I believe it’s a representation of Dongpo, as an old man, continuing the search that the rest of the piece shows him doing when he was younger (or remembering such searches, with the entire production being a series of flashbacks). As such, it’s something of an epilogue in the form of a prologue. And the piece’s final images verify this, as Dongpo (the younger) continues his search.

China Oriental Performing Arts Group
& Meishan Song and Dance Theatre
in Shen Wei’s “Dongpo: Life in Poems”
Photo Courtesy of China Arts and Entertainment Group

The presentation is divided into six segments, called “Acts,” each corresponding to an unidentified poem (or excerpt). [The “prologue” that I’ve described above, since poem excerpts were projected onto it, may have been part of Act I.] Some or all of these Acts may be preceded by some sort of inter-Act presentation, which may or may not relate to something specific and that flows into the next Act. Identifying what happens here is difficult – and may not have been one of Shen’s concerns. It’s all about visualizing Dongpo’s emotions as might be gleaned from the poem excerpts.

The manifestation of these emotional explorations takes the form of searches for, combined with memories of, his dead wife (or, by extension, wives), or places in which he’s lived or visited, or wishes and dreams. In every Act, there’s a Dongpo surrogate (one of the dancers – the same one throughout) who always appears to be searching for something – a search that never ends.

China Oriental Performing Arts Group
& Meishan Song and Dance Theatre
in Shen Wei’s “Dongpo: Life in Poems”
Photo Courtesy of China Arts and Entertainment Group

It would take too long, and would require extraordinary effort (as well as more memory cells than I presently possess), to detail each of the six Acts plus inter-Act scenes. Suffice it to say that each is reasonably distinctive, and that most of the dancing that takes place within each Act looks gorgeous but is executed by the dancers in tandem (occasionally with subgroups separated out but still performing the choreography in lockstep with the others), with only minor and occasional departures from the organized mass. Overall, however, there’s a serenity to it, reflected in the costuming and, surprisingly, enhanced by the regimentation, as well as by there being little or no facial expression, including eye movement, throughout the piece. That being said, these dancers have an exceptional quality about them that makes being a cog in a machine somehow look interesting.

China Oriental Performing Arts Group
& Meishan Song and Dance Theatre
in Shen Wei’s “Dongpo: Life in Poems”
Photo Courtesy of China Arts and Entertainment Group

The only significant variation from this in terms of movement quality (it’s all contemporary dance, not ballet, but the movement at times is so balletic that it might as well be) occurs early in the piece, when a group of dancers emerges, as I recall in different costumes from the previous group (or those then on stage), and dance with far more fire and force and angularity than I’d previously seen or would see subsequently. Although still regimented, the overall movement quality of this was highly animated and impressively choreographed (perhaps incorporating martial art references that were reportedly incorporated into the choreography). I would love to have seen more of that style of dance peppered throughout the piece.

China Oriental Performing Arts Group
& Meishan Song and Dance Theatre
in Shen Wei’s “Dongpo: Life in Poems”
Photo Courtesy of China Arts and Entertainment Group

And these dancers may not have been the same dancers as are present in the rest of the piece. The program references two sets of participating dance companies: China Oriental Performing Arts Group Co., Ltd., and Moishan Song and Dance Theatre. But the dancers in the piece are listed together as a group, with no indication of their affiliation – or, for that matter, no distinction as to their roles. So there’s no way to determine whether the two sets of company dancers have been homogenized into a single group, or if part of the dancer listing applies to one company and part to the other company. It doesn’t matter – it is what it is – but to Western eyes it might have been nice to know.

China Oriental Performing Arts Group
& Meishan Song and Dance Theatre
in Shen Wei’s “Dongpo: Life in Poems”
Photo Courtesy of China Arts and Entertainment Group

Beyond the choreographed dancing itself, there are two Acts (or inter Acts) that are so distinctive that they must be highlighted.

In Act III, the poem used to describe the Act (each Act is described solely through poetic references) is the poem that Dongpo created ten years after his first wife’s death that I alluded to above. Although the poem isn’t titled in the program (none are), that poem, again according to the same Wikipedia entry the I reference above, is titled “To the tune ,”River Town” (don’t ask – I have no idea what that means). Another source gives the title as:  “Dreaming of My Deceased Wife on the Night of the 20th Day of the First Month” (from a web-based book of Chinese poetry: www.chinese-poems.com), but I doubt that that was the poem’s actual title. Whatever its title, the song reportedly remains one of Dongpo’s most famous poems.

China Oriental Performing Arts Group
& Meishan Song and Dance Theatre
in Shen Wei’s “Dongpo: Life in Poems”
Photo Courtesy of China Arts and Entertainment Group

The opening line of the poem, according to the program’s translation, fixes its subject: “Life has separated us for ten years…”  In the accompanying visualization, Dongpo is seen seemingly searching for his dead wife, and at one point the dead wife appears (one female dancer who looks somewhat older than the corps dancers, and is dressed in a long gown/dress that also distinguishes her from the corps dancers) who leads him (she’s his vision), accompanied by a song sung in a female voice (providing an added image of the dancer/vision as a siren), until eventually she (her image) disappears. It’s the most concrete of the piece’s six Acts – what’s happening is crystal clear. It’s also very interestingly staged, requiring multiple levels of action.

China Oriental Performing Arts Group
& Meishan Song and Dance Theatre
in Shen Wei’s “Dongpo: Life in Poems”
Photo Courtesy of China Arts and Entertainment Group

Also interestingly staged and requiring multiple levels of action is Act IV (but I’m not certain of that). It consists of one lengthy scene that is truly exceptional. I can’t say what’s happening, but I’d happily see it again without ever knowing why it’s there.

In a vast expanse of stage air space, a huge moon face is fixed at the audience-right side of the stage, with its image facing sideways toward the rest of the stage. Above the stage floor, seemingly floating in space, are circles of heads. One set of heads, audience-left, is comprised of female heads; the other set audience-right consists of male heads. The heads appear to be realistic-looking colored paintings – with totally fixed expressions and no perceptible movement. [I looked through binoculars.] Beneath each head are rumpled sculptures of some sort, in a color that’s identical to the background scrim, making them appear to be sculptured components of the surrounding ether. The array reminded me of a certain style of Chinese (and Japanese) pottery that displays multiple identical facial images that seem always to be looking out at something. [Alternatively, I thought, the Chinese equivalent of a Greek Chorus.]

China Oriental Performing Arts Group
& Meishan Song and Dance Theatre
in Shen Wei’s “Dongpo: Life in Poems”
Photo Courtesy of China Arts and Entertainment Group

While action takes place on the stage floor (involving the Dongpo surrogate), I looked closer at those head statues. They weren’t statues; they were the heads of the dancers. After a brief passage of time, I saw these heads (on both sides of the expanse of space) begin to move…barely.  And then, a minute or two later, those crumpled areas that appeared to be sculpted into the surrounding air slowly began to move, and moments later could be seen connected to those “heads” that were floating in space as cape or dress costumes. Soon thereafter, the two sets of figures merged into one mass, eventually enveloping the Dongpo surrogate.

Watching all this was like watching a dream in motion.

I have no idea why it was there or why it was displayed as it was. The poem excerpt that it seemingly illustrates includes a reference to a moon, and to the speaker’s final resting place, so one might assume it referenced Dongpo’s anticipated death, but the excerpt also references “may all of us far apart be blessed with longevity so that we can always share the moon’s beauty,” which leads in another direction. But this was such a brilliant coup de théâtre that I didn’t care in the least that its meaning and purpose were unclear.

China Oriental Performing Arts Group
& Meishan Song and Dance Theatre
in Shen Wei’s “Dongpo: Life in Poems”
Photo Courtesy of China Arts and Entertainment Group

There are many other isolated moments that imbedded themselves in my memory, too numerous to mention here. [They include, for example, the extraordinarily vivid creation of a multi-colored piece of calligraphic art – perhaps akin to one that Su created, since there’s a reference to that in the program – which, after its completion, became a travelling image across the otherwise bare upstage scrim.]

China Oriental Performing Arts Group
& Meishan Song and Dance Theatre
in Shen Wei’s “Dongpo: Life in Poems”
Photo Courtesy of China Arts and Entertainment Group

One final comment about the dancers. There are twenty-four listed in the program, plus two others, one of whom I took to be the younger, “constantly searching” Dongpo surrogate (Su Peng); the other might have been the image of Dongpo’s deceased first wife (from Act III as described above), since she was the only dancer to have any significant solo work (Liu Jie). Some of these twenty-four dancers I would have wanted to separately recognize (even though most everything among the dancers was regimented, there’s always the possibility, as it turned out, happened here) that one or two stand out in some particular way. Unfortunately, there’s no way I can identify them with anything resembling certainty.

Dongpo: Life in Poems is not the kind of theatrical experience that produces a cathartic reaction, or that connects with a viewer emotionally. It’s not that kind of story. But as one might glean from my comments, Dongpo: Life in Poems is almost overpowering in its detail and scope, capturing a viewer’s memory even if it leaves a viewer’s heart untouched. The effort that produced this undertaking is exceeded only by its breadth of accomplishment…and its importance as a work of art. If it ever returns, it a recommended destination.