A classic tale retold

By Zhang Kun | China Daily | Updated: 2022-10-31 08:02
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White Snake performers in rehearsal. [Photo by Gao Erqiang/China Daily]

New dance adaptation of a popular Chinese story promises to impress audiences, Zhang Kun reports in Shanghai.

Led by Tan Yuanyuan, the upcoming dance theater production White Snake will bring together a stellar cast of Chinese dancers who have been active on the global stage over the past decades.

Jointly produced by the Shanghai Grand Theatre, the Dadi Music Co, the Shanghai Opera House and the Shanghai Theatre Academy, the production will premiere at the Shanghai Grand Theatre on Friday, with five shows to be staged until Nov 7.

Choreographed by Chinese American artist Edwaard Liang, the production will present a story that spans modern-age reality to the dreamy world of ancient Chinese folklore and features a combination of ballet, folk and classical Chinese dance, as well as modern dance expressions.

One of the best-known ballet dancers from China, Tan — she has been the principal ballerina at the San Francisco Ballet for more than 20 years — will play the lead role of Bai Suzhen in the modern-reality scenario and White Snake in the dream sequence.

The White Snake is the latest important character that Tan has taken on in her illustrious career, after playing the heroines in dance productions of Swan Lake, Giselle and The Little Mermaid.

With a vision to put together a "dream cast" for the new production, the artistic director reached out to a large number of Chinese artists who have been active in the global dance theater field.

Bai's husband in the modern-reality scenes will be played by Guo Chengwu, the principal artist at the Australian Ballet since 2013. Li Jiabo, who was the principal dancer at the Hong Kong Ballet for 10 years, will play the role of Xu Xian, the husband of White Snake in the dream world.

Cao Chi, a former principal dancer with the Birmingham Royal Ballet in the United Kingdom, will play the monk Fahai in the dream world and a psychiatrist in the modern storyline, while Song Jie, an award-winning Chinese folk dancer and principal of the Shanghai Opera House's dance company, will play Xiaoqing, the Green Snake.

During one of her performing tours in her home city of Shanghai two years ago, Tan spoke with Zhang Xiaoding, general manager of the Shanghai Grand Theatre, when they agreed to adapt the Chinese folk tale Legend of the White Snake for dance theater. Dating back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907), it is one of the most popular love stories in Chinese folklore and revolves around Bai Suzhen, a woman, transformed from an immortal white snake, who falls in love with a young scholar named Xu Xian.

Along with her sister, Xiaoqing, who was transformed from a green snake, Bai fights Fahai, a monk representing the heavenly order that separates humans from supernatural beings. Bai eventually fails in the battle and ends up being imprisoned under the Leifeng Pagoda for centuries. The story has been widely adapted into folk operas, films, TV series and cartoons that often come with a happy ending as people tend to have deep sympathy and admiration for Bai, the brave Madame White Snake.

But Tan's new dance production will break with convention and instead be told from the perspective of feminism. With the help of renowned playwright Luo Zhou and theater director Zhou Ke, she has designed the show around an awakening — Bai is a modern housewife trapped in her familial role, doing the same chores every day, taking care of her husband and children. Her husband, a successful businessman played by Guo, takes her to a psychiatrist when Bai suffers a mental breakdown and claims to hear a strange woman's voice inside her head. Hypnotized by the wizard-like psychiatrist, played by Cao, Bai dreams about her previous life as the White Snake, and recognizes the voice of Xiaoqing, the Green Snake, a free spirit who has no fear in speaking her mind and chases love and joy without hesitation.

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