When the independent, New York-based network New Tang Dynasty Television (NTDTV) hosted its inaugural Chinese New Year Global Gala in Manhattan Theater four years ago, nobody could have expected it to evolve into what people are now calling a Chinese cultural renaissance.
Billboard magazine ranked the February 2006 production among the top 10 shows of the month. This year, the Chinese New Year Spectacular (as the show is now called) began its season with Holiday Wonders, which was a Broadway production in the Beacon Theatre, and concluded after a half-year worldwide tour—including April’ s highly successful run in Asia.
On the show’s website, the organizers say they hope to "bring back to life the genuine traditional Chinese culture through world-class artistic presentations." Judging by the packed theaters around the globe, audiences are loving it. As Chinese language learning becomes more and more popular today, and as NTDTV moves promptly to host the first International Chinese Classic Dance Competition in July 2007, both East and West have actually begun contemplating: Are we in the midst of a real Chinese cultural renaissance?
New Tang Dynasty’s Chinese New Year Spectacular Growth from 2004 to 2008
2004: 6 cities: New York, Washington D.C., Toronto, San Francisco, Paris, Taipei
2005: 7 cities: New York, London, Hong Kong, Washington D.C., San Francisco, Toronto, Taipei
2006: 17 cities: Boston, New York, Wilmington, Chicago, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Houston, Paris, Seoul, Sydney, Toronto, Vancouver, Taipei, Taichung, Kaohsiung
2007: More than 30 cities with more than 80 separate performances
2008: At least 60 cities worldwide
New York City Performances
2004: Manhattan Theater, 1 show
2005: Madison Square Garden, 1 show, over 5,000 in attendance, full house
2006: Radio City Music Hall, 3 shows*
2007: Radio City Music Hall, 7 shows, over 40,000 in attendance
*Also in December 2006, NTDTV added a Chinese celebration for the American holiday season to their calendar called Holiday Wonders at the Beacon Theatre, 9 shows
Classic Beauty with Modern Presentation
Divinely Imparted Culture
When the famous gold curtain at Radio City Music Hall first lifted at the beginning of the Chinese New Year Spectacular, the crowd was immediately captivated. The stage was aglow with a scene straight from heaven. Angels, Buddhas, Daos, and other celestial beings filled the cloud-covered stage. Behind them, the enormous LED screen merged beautifully with the staging, displaying a backdrop that looked like something Raphael would have designed if he knew how to use 3-D animation software. The audience simply burst into applause within seconds.
The bold opening act was "Creation," which told a legend about the beginning of time when gods first set the course of Chinese history. It lifted the expectations of the audience for the rest of the show, and they were not disappointed. What followed were artistic performances that inspired their very souls.
"The traditional Chinese culture was imparted by heavenly beings, and the Tang Dynasty culture is the most representative Chinese culture with the highest achievement. The show reproduces many precious historical facts which can inspire the audience to ponder: Where do human beings come from and where does human culture come from? They may find the answers from the show," said Vina Lee, lead dancer and choreographer with Divine Performing Arts in an interview with The Epoch Times.
The divine theme of the Spectacular continued throughout the show.
The dance "A Dunhuang Dream" portrayed a sculptor who is visited in a dream by the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas that he thought were merely stone. With this inspiration, he then goes on to craft thousands of Buddha statues in the Dunhuang Caves—a real man-made wonder and the most renowned Buddhist cave temple along the Silk Road.
Ms. Rachel Wang of New York once visited these caves in Shaanxi Province. She said she was amazed by the magnificent traditional culture and at the same time was wondering how ancient people could have the wisdom to craft so many life-like Buddha statues. "After seeing this program, I now understand how the statues were crafted and have a new understanding of why China is known as ‘The Divine Land.’"
Harmony Among Heaven, Earth, and Human Beings
All the performances were rooted in the Chinese value of promoting harmony among heaven, earth, and human beings:
"Forsythia in Spring" portrayed the blooming forsythia flowers with frolicking movements and bright costumes that expressed feelings of hope and renewal. The melody and the use of spinning handkerchiefs to symbolize the brilliantly colored blossoms were both distinctive of China’s northeastern region.
"Ladies of the Manchu Court" presented an imperial dance of elegant ladies who danced the audience into a trance as they swayed gently in their traditional Manchurian high-heeled shoes. Manchurian women have always been known for their grace, refinement, and virtuous demeanor.
"Rainbows" was a colorful ribbon dance set to the tune of a northeastern Chinese folksong called "A Night with a Crescent Moon."
"Mulan." Wow! This dance version of the legend of Mulan followed the classic narrative poem "Ballad of Mulan," which dates back to China’s Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534 A.D.). Mulan is said to have disguised herself as a man in order to serve in the army in place of her elderly father. Only after she returned from triumphant battle was her true identity discovered.
These intricately choreographed, large-scale dances were interspersed with musical soloists, each accentuated by stunning digital backdrops. There were snowy mountain scenes, quaint Chinese villages with little puffing chimneys, country landscapes, and glorious palaces. The lyrics for all the songs were projected in both Chinese characters and English lettering, which enriched the experience for everyone.
Authentic Chinese Culture Without the Influence of the Communist Culture
One person who attended the show was a Ph.D. student in East Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia University. Matt Kutolowski told NTDTV in fluent Mandarin, "Chinese culture proper has nothing to do with that of the communists. The NTDTV programs tonight were really something—just incredible. I would dare say we’re witnessing nothing short of a renewal of Chinese culture… A show like this is really something precious."
Ever since China’s cultural revolution in the 1960s, the traditional Chinese culture has been lost at the hands of the Communist Party. Now, the Chinese New Year Spectacular is reviving it by bringing those ancient values into a modern setting with performances that draw on very timely themes.
Perspective from the West: Discovering A Different China
Discovering the Real China
"Everything left a lasting impression," said Helga Mueller to The Epoch Times after the show in her hometown of Berlin.
"It seemed so Chinese, as if one was living in that country. I was totally captivated! I visited China about eight years ago. I must say, what I saw there can’t be talked about in the same breath than the Spectacular—it is like day and night. This is true art, all of it: The technique, costumes, performance, the dancers and the singers. It was of much deeper content than what I saw in Beijing… The Spectacular was filled with value and was very artistic. I must say that it was fantastic."
Beyond Jackie Chan’s Kung Fu kicks and Yao Ming’s slam dunks, Westerners know very little about genuine Chinese culture, but that didn’t stop the Spectacular from having universal appeal.
According to audience interviews after the performances, an overwhelming majority of the more than 200,000 live-audience attendees during the 2007 tour greatly enjoyed the show. Whether this was their first experience with Chinese culture or just the most recent, many said that it truly earned the name "Spectacular."
Arts Editor of the Canberra Times, Helen Musa, said after watching the show in Canberra, Australia, that, on one level "how could you go past the costumes and the dancing—they were absolutely fantastic and … easy to understand." On the other hand, Ms. Musa said, the show was working on a number of different levels—"not just the eyes, not just the ears, but the heart and soul."
Epoch Times reporter Chowa Choo wrote after the show in Paris: "They came to Paris, they captivated the audiences in Palais des Congress, and they conquered their hearts. Last Saturday on February 24, more than 7,000 people in the art capital of Europe experienced traditional Chinese culture in its purest form."
Therese Nedelec, a contralto in France, said, "I was moved to tears by the song ‘Tiananmen, Please Tell Me’ which was presented by the contralto Yang Jiansheng." Nedelec offered to sing the song if it could be translated into other languages.
"There were no special effects, no psychedelic lights, and no spotlights—just pure art," said Khosro Zabihi, author of an illustrated book on Kurdish people and culture.
"I cannot find words to appreciate…what my family and I experienced this weekend. We will never forget it," he added.
"Best ever! Everything from the original music to the dance numbers, the hosts, and the graphics," said Simon Applebaum from Cable World magazine, of Brooklyn, NY.
Mr. Lester Cohen, founder and chairman of the charity SafeBlood Society in New York City said, "I enjoyed the performance immensely. I came alone, thinking that it would just be a few hours of general entertainment. But it was so inspiring… Most impressive were the words about goodness, about the spirit of life, about truth. That was important to me. I don’t think I’ll ever forget this performance … It covered what life is all about."
Paul Catafago, executive director of Movement One: Creative Coalition, praised the high production value. He felt the art of the show was a tool to inform, "The orchestra flowed with the choreography. The music fit the choreography perfectly."
Question from the East: "Are They Really from America?"
The 2007 Chinese New Year Spectacular was performed by the New York-based Divine Performing Arts, and many of its members were born in America—some never even having been to China.
The real test of the show’s genuineness came as they toured Taiwan from April 7 to April 21, giving a total of 15 shows in five cities: Taipei, Tainan, Taichung, Kaoshiung, and Chaiyi.
It passed with flying colors.
In interviews during intermission and after the show, people kept asking, "Are they really from America?" They wondered how this American troupe was actually more Chinese than anything they could find in Taiwan.
Internationally renowned ink and watercolor painter Li Chi-Mao said the show was the best he had seen in 60 years. The president of Chaiyi’s Nanhua University was so inspired by the show that he wanted his university to start a dance program.
In Taipei, the 3,000 tickets sold out in a mere three hours after the box office opened. The organizers had to add three extra performances in the Taipei International Conference Convention Hall later that month.
The Taiwan premiere saw a packed Taipei Cultural Center, and Taiwanese Vice-President Lu Hsiu-lien attended as the guest of honor, giving an opening speech. After the show gained wider and wider publicity, when it came back to Taipei for the added performances, Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian and Premier Su Tseng-chang sent bouquets of flowers to honor the show.
Veteran Painter: The Overall Manifestation of Chinese Classical Beauty
Eighty-seven-year-old veteran painter Mr. Kuo Tao-cheng attended the performance by Divine Performing Arts on April 16, 2007. During intermission, he kept asking NTDTV staff who the organizer of the show in Taiwan was. "Does the Divine Performing Arts troupe really come from the United States?"
Kuo told The Epoch Times that the performance thoroughly manifested Chinese classical beauty and was the best show he had ever seen since he came to Taiwan (about half a century ago). He commented that not only were the costumes well thought out, but the backdrop—including design, color, sound, and lights—were high-class and original, and should be honored with the highest award for stage performance. Such a high standard of performance has rarely been seen in Taiwan. He also thought that a performance with such profound educational meaning should be encouraged and supported by the government.
Cable TV Manager: "I Don’t Know Why I Feel So Moved"
The manager of Nan Kuo CATV, Han Hsu-yuan, was deeply moved. She said that she could not help shedding tears because she had never seen traditional virtues such as honesty, kindness, loyalty, and filial piety interpreted so well.
She said that the world needs inspiring performances like the ones presented by Divine Performing Arts to remind a community to pay attention to these traditional values, which will be of great help for the future of our society.
Renowned Taiwanese choreographer Dr. Liu Feng-hsueh praised Divine Performing Arts’ ability to blend ethnic characteristics with modern features. She was moved by every program, specifically noting that although some of the dancers were quite young, their skills were exceptional and they performed beautifully. "The whole performance combined spirit and dancing with Chinese cultural characteristics. The choreography was very well thought out."
The director and conductor of the Kaohsiung Traditional Chinese Instrument Orchestra Mr. Wu Hong-chang said that he could not hold back his tears during the show. He was amazed by the creativity of the choreographers and wondered how the composers made the music so beautiful; they made him proud to be Chinese.
Cai Mei-ling, former director of the Women’s International Youth Business Association in Taiwan, said, "If there are tickets left for the show tomorrow, I would love to come again."
Ms. Cai said she experienced a warm feeling, as if meeting relatives or old friends, but also a little sadness. After watching the first performance, she said that it was like recalling a deep memory in her heart. She added that she could enjoy other types of performances very much but did not feel the deeper connotations in them as she did in this presentation by Divine Performing Arts. She felt the auspicious and compassionate energy surrounding each person in the whole hall.
Bring Chinese Arts to the World Stage
The 20th century saw a collapse in traditional Chinese arts. All the wars, both civil and international, combined with the destructive rule of the Communist Party nearly destroyed the artistic spirit of the Chinese people. Jai Ben-ray, dean of the Social Science College at Nanhua University in Jiayi County, watched the last show on April 21. Afterward, he felt that Divine Performing Arts has made a great contribution to Chinese culture by bringing their arts back to the world stage.
He said, "For a long time, the Chinese had been highly influenced by the Western arts. Once art was mentioned, we would feel that art seems to be Mozart’s music or a Western ballet. Consequently, over the past hundred years, the Chinese have been very limited in their artistic expression. Subconsciously we did not believe the Chinese arts could be developed."
"However," said Jai, "Watching today’s performance, my feeling is that the Chinese arts can be developed in many fields. Today, I saw that the stage settings, backdrops, background music, art expression, vocal singing, art design, as well as the expression of the content can all be different from the Western world. It can all be new and innovative, but it can also return to the values of traditional Chinese culture."
Father Lu Da-cheng: The Divine Performing Arts "Awakens People’s
Desire to Seek for the Root of Culture"
Father Lu Da-cheng is the chair of the Department of Religion at Furen University. He read many reports about the show before he came to see it. He said, "[It is] a superb show that has made such a strong impression and is already at its peak—it would be hard for me to add any more praise." He said that what shook him was how the show awakened a deep feeling of assimilation to Chinese culture in his heart. "It resonated with me throughout all of the songs and dances."
He said, "The show was very creative. I was amazed that the performers, who grew up in America, had such good understandings of the Chinese culture. Such a program awakens people’s desire to seek for the root of culture."
One dance, "To the Rightful Place," depicted the persecution of Falun Gong in China. Father Lu said: "My family members are Catholic. Two brothers of mine were jailed by the communists for 20 years. My uncle was jailed for nine years and died in prison. Although it happened in the 1950s, it still hurts. The Communist Party is not a reasonable regime. They persecute their own members too, not only other groups. If you have a belief or opinion different from the Communist Party, it will persecute you. The persecution of Falun Gong is very brutal. I know about it and am very concerned about it."
Behind the Scenes with the Divine Performing Arts Orchestra
Combining West and East
This year, the Chinese New Year Spectacular incorporated a live orchestra for the first time—the Tianyin Orchestra, translated as the Celestial Melody Orchestra. The conductor, Rutang Chen, said that what the orchestra (now known as the Divine Performing Arts Orchestra) was trying to do was not just repeat ancient Chinese culture but, instead, create a new art form by using "good old" values.
Rutang Chen, a veteran musician and China’s First-Class Cellist, is the former director of the Chinese National Symphony Orchestra and chief artistic director for NTDTV’s Chinese New Year show in 2006.
Chen said, "Audiences will experience both the splendor of Western symphony and the style of Chinese folk instruments." One of the orchestra’s talents, he says, "is the combination of Western and Eastern instruments; we mainly use orchestral instruments, but also include Chinese traditional instruments such as erhu, biwa (pipa), guzheng (Chinese zither), and the Chinese flute."
U.S.-based Taiwanese violinist Chia-chi Lin began to learn violin at three years of age. Lin studied at the Rice University Shepherd School of Music and Johns Hopkins University Peabody Conservatory of Music. She then went on to work in the University of Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra for the past 15 years.
Lin said that although she has had many performance experiences, she can feel a unique harmony of body and spirit while performing with the Divine Performing Arts Orchestra. "Chinese music often has profound inner meanings; its performance comes out from one’s heart. And Western music has a very mature development in skill and technique and is very systematic." She says the orchestra "combines the technique of Western music with the meaning of Chinese music. In other words, China’s musical soul combines with Western skill and technique to create a perfect union."
A Truly Moving Experience
On the second day of the orchestra’s performance at Radio City, conductor Rutang Chen told The Epoch Times newspaper: "During today’s performance, I myself had to try hard not to burst into tears during my conducting—the music was simply moving. This is something quite rare in my whole career."
Guan Guimin, who is commonly called "China’s King of Tenors," echoed the sentiments of Mr. Chen. He said he has seen excited, ecstatic, or wild audiences before, but never so many who were moved to the point of shedding tears, adding that it is something quite rare.
The orchestra had only been playing together for one year. Thus, they not only had to endure the travails of a new orchestra but also work with an entirely new breed of music. Most were trained in Western classical music, and even though all of them came with a certain appreciation for Chinese music, no one had ever played songs like those composed for the Spectacular. In fact, no one had ever heard songs like that before.
Original, Through and Through
Ningfang Chen, wife of conductor Rutang Chen, composed many of the pieces for the Spectacular. She said that all the music in the show was original.
"To compose music that helps the dancers and choreographers tell a story is particularly important. The first step is that the choreographer conceives an idea then approaches me. We work back and forth. It’s a very collaborative process, and new ideas emerge."
Some of the pieces, however, began with Chen herself. She composed "Candlelight Vigil" after being "deeply moved by a candlelight vigil under the Washington Monument in memory of people who were persecuted for practicing Falun Gong."
Falun Gong is a form of Chinese cultivation practice, rooted in traditional Chinese culture based on philosophies like Buddhism and Daoism, with the core principles being "truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance." Chen said that the song and its underlying message of tolerance then inspired one of the choreographers to create the accompanying dance.
Mrs. Chen, who lived most of her life in China, has experienced the Chinese communist regime’s oppression first hand. She was a member of the only orchestra to survive the Cultural Revolution, a period of time in the late 1960s during which Chinese classical arts, culture, and religions were all harshly criticized and mostly destroyed.
At that time, anything from the West and anything considered bourgeois (like most arts) was banned. Most musicians stopped playing because they feared being labeled a "class enemy." Chen says, "Most artists were sent to the poorest parts of the country to do forced labor, to be ‘reformed’ (by communist ideology)." Even though her group—the best in the country—was allowed to continue performing, "We were forced to only play theatrical pieces extolling the Chinese Communist Party," she says.
Both Mr. and Mrs. Chen began to practice Falun Gong in the early 1990s when they saw this practice change their disobedient son into a disciplined young man. Their son was later arrested when the persecution began in 1999. For 18 months he was physically and psychologically tortured in a labor camp until being rescued and fleeing to the United States. Now, he lives in New York and plays oboe in the orchestra.
Many members of Divine Performing Arts as well as the Divine Performing Arts Orchestra have amazing stories like the Chens’. It is part of what distinguishes them from their contemporaries, making their performances so spirited.
The only question now is: What do they have planned for 2008? The performers all smile when asked this question. "Just wait and see," they reply.
One NTDTV staff member working on the show said, "Our success in 2007 gave us a huge boost. Preparations for 2008 are already at full steam and everyone is more excited than ever. It’s going to be a great year!"
Xiao Yang and Jared Pearman are Washington, D.C., based writers.