by Sun Jingchen, Luo Xiongyan, Zi Huayun
Grand Music and Dance Epics

Large-scale music and dance epics are a traditional art form in China, a combination of music, dance and poetry. Their origin can be traced back to a thousand years ago. "Dawu" and "jiuge", which were mentioned before, both belong to this category. The music and dance epics cover a wide range of subjects, the most common and most important of which is the presentation of big historical events.

"Long Live the People's Victory", created to celebrate the founding of the People's Republic of China, can be regarded as the first Chinese contemporary music and dance epic. It is not a simple presentation of a celebration. It, instead, is a great artistic creation that embodies the enthusiasm and talent of many excellent artists. It achieved tremendous success. The creating group included the most outstanding artists in Beijing in the fields of literature, drama, music, dance and stage design. one of them is the famous poet Guang Weiran, who wrote the lyrics for the "Yellow River Cantata". Dai Ailian and Hu Sha were the work's chief directors and the composers included Liu Tieshan.

This dance epic begins with "The Dance of War Drums" which is full of power and grandeur. A mighty drummer beats a huge drum at the center of the stage, and many "Peasants" echo the drumming with gongs and cymbals. The resounding drums and gongs and the powerful dance express the majesty of a nation that has just stood up from its ruins. The following parts of the dance epic concentrate on the expression of the people's jubilation after achieving historic victory, with various artistic means, different subjects and styles helping to achieve the result. There are narrative songs and dances; rich and colorful dances of ethnic minorities; individual performances and large group dances. Over a hundred performers joined the show and created a magnificent scene on the stage. The audience was intoxicated by the exciting and beautiful presentation. The dance epic, without much ornamentation, diffuses the fragrance of the soil and is full of artistic appeal. After the performance at the celebration ceremony, the dance epic was staged again publicly, causing quite a stir.

Fifteen years later, another dance epic masterpiece was put on the stage. "The East Is Red", premiered in 1964, was on a much larger scale and higher artistic standards. Therefore, it had a greater influence on the people. The dance epic was created on the initiative of Premier Zhou Enlai. Employing the art forms of song, dance and poetry, it depicted the arduous struggle of the Chinese people to achieve victory from past hardships. The team of directors and choreographers was led by Chen Yading and Zhou Weizhi. Both of them were artists and administrators in art and literature circles. There were 29 choreographers led by Zha Lie involved in this work and rehearsals for the dance epic lasted for months. The premiere of the work and the following performances were all held at the Great Hall of the People.

"The East Is Red" featured a close-knit structure, powerful presentation, exquisite designs and superb artists. In addition to large amounts of new work, the dance epic also included many excellent songs and dances, which were created after the founding of the People's Republic of China and were popular among the people. These selections were arranged into the whole work appropriately. Nearly all of China's best-known singers, dancers and musicians at that time participated in the show --a total of 3,000 performers, including some art troupes from outside Beijing.

"The East Is Red" described the Chinese people's revolutionary history. The performance also served as a review of China's development in song and dance, as well as a review of the achievements of artists after the founding of the PRC. It became the most significant art performance since 1949. In 1965, "The East Is Red" was adapted into an art film and received accolades from both home and abroad. Even today, three decades after the premiere of the film "The East Is Red", whenever it is staged, it receives a warm welcome from the Chinese people.

The dance epic "The East Is Red" was listed as one of the Dance Classics Of the Chinese Nation in the 20th Century. (Fig.3-29)

Premiered in 1984, "The Song of the Chinese People's Revolution" had a similar scale, design and artistic style to the "The East Is Red". It focused on major domestic events spanning a much wider period of time since the founding of PRC. Thanks to improvements in stage design, the dance epic was able to apply modern technological means to create a better atmosphere on the stage. This work has a definite modern style. There have been many ancient-style, large-scale music and dances since the 1980s. The Shaanxi Song and Dance Drama Theater presented the "Music and Dance in Tang Dynasty Style" in 1982 (choreographed and directed by Shi Yanan and others, composed by Yang jiemin, etc.) and "The Chang'an Music and Dance of the Tang Dynasty" in 1983 (choreographed and directed by Wei Tianxi, etc., and composers included Lu Bing). These two works were created according to historical records from the Tang Dynasty, including those of murals and terra-cotta dancers in excavated tombs. Though these works had different intentions, they both vividly portrayed the music and dance styles of the flourishing Tang Dynasty.

"Music and Dance with Chime-Dells" presented by the Hubei Song and Dance Drama Theater in 1983 (choreographed and directed by Wang Shan and others, composers include Xu jieru) brought back to the stage 2,000-year-old chime-bells which were excavated in 1978. The choreography drew references from the paintings and Fig.s unearthed during the same period, in an effort to reveal the ancient customs of the Chu State Culture.

In addition, there were an abundance of dances that represented the lives and customs of China's ethnic groups. The Shanxi Song and Dance Drama Theater in 1987 and 1989 presented respectively "Love for the Yellow River" and "The Land along the Yellow River" (directed by Wang Xiufang [1942- ] and Zhangjigang), which caused a sensation with their strong local features and rural flavor Unfolding the local customs in an artistic way, the dances attempted to explore the characters of the people living beside the Yellow River, a move that helped raise the traditional art form to a higher level. These works sparked renewed interest in traditional dances with strong folk flavors.

In 1994, the Hubei Yichang Song and Dance Ensemble presented a series of dance dramas on the wedding customs of the Tujia people. An excellent combination of dance, poetry and music, the dance dramas displayed the ethnic group's life style and wedding customs. The audience was impressed with the appealing folk culture, shining characters as well as the interesting plots that were full of wit and humor.

The series "Tuliba People" or "The Rustics" was directed by Men Wenyuan, (main choreographers included Zhang Xiaorui [1960- ] and Xie Ke [1957- ]; composer: Zhao Fang.) "Tuliba People" won the Third Wenhua Grand Award. (Fig.3-30)

Chinese dance underwent notable changes and development during a new historical period when people's aesthetic demands became multi-faceted and varied. Compared with the aesthetic styles of the 1950s and 60s, which were characterized by bright and plain dancing styles, dances today put more emphasis on direct visual effect with exaggerated body movements and strong, lively rhythms. This development, to some extent, can be regarded as a reflection of modern people's psychological needs for excitement as they live in a highly pressured, fast-changing society Mirroring the spirit of the times has always been the tradition of Chinese dance in the 20th century.

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