Theater Arts: Dance

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Theater Arts: Dance


Tang Dance. During the Tang dynasty (618-907) dances were usually performed by one or two people and were divided into two styles: ranwu (soft dance) and jianwu (vigorous dance). With names such as luyao (green waist) and chunyingzhuan (twitter of spring oriole), soft dances were graceful and expressive with relaxed and relatively slow movements. Vigorous dances such as thejianqi (sword dance) were powerful and explosive with quick and complicated rhythms. Tang dance absorbed many elements from foreign dances, including the huxuan (barbarian spin) and huteng (barbarian jump) from western Asia. The barbarian spin was mostly performed by female dancers who could make quick and agile turns. The barbarian jump demonstrated the performer’s ability to leap and quickly change steps. Tang actors and actresses also created new dances. Zhezhiwu (Cudrania twig), which included dance elements imported from Central Asia, was classed as both soft and vigorous because it is graceful and expressive as well as energetic and unrestrained. It could be performed by one or two dancers or by a group of dancers and required strict training. When a dancer performed it well, her body was so flexible that it seemed to have no bones at all. Three well-known early Tang dances were the qidewu (seven virtues dance), jiugongwu (nine achievements dance), and shangyuanwu (superior primary dance). Following the tradition of previous dynasties, Tang rulers kept at their court many foreign dancers of well-known families, including Mi Jiarong, He Liang, Mi Hejia, and Mi Wanchui.

Tang Palace Dance. Tang palace dancers inherited the palace-dance system of the Sui dynasty (589-618) and continued to perform to the accompaniment of music in the categories known as “the nine melodies.” Between 637 and 642, a tenth melody, multinational music, was added. The Tang developed dance scores and established a dance school at the Liyuan (Pear Garden), where palace musicians were trained. Among the Tang dance programs, the best known was pozhenyue (breaking battle array), performed to music played by sitting players and standing players. Tang emperor Taizong (ruled 626-649), who was the Prince of Qin before he became emperor, sketched a pozhenyue performance in 633. “The Prince of Qin’s Breaking Battle Array” has three sections, each with 120 dancers dressed and armed like warriors. They were accompanied by big drums and vigorous music. In “Longevity of the Majesty” about one hundred colorfully dressed dancers formed the shapes of sixteen Chinese characters extolling the emperor. The “Great Peace,” or “Lion Dance of Five Dimensions,” was a elaborate version of the folk performance known as the lion dance. The dancers wore fake lion skins and portrayed five lions facing in five directions. Two dancers teased each lion into moods of excitement, indifference, happiness, or anger—all to the accompaniment of instrumental music and 140 singers. The dance section of nishangyuyi (rainbow and feather dress), one of the well-known Tang musical entertainments known as grand melody, was performed by dancers dressed like goddesses and was vividly described by the poet Bai Juyi (772-846) in his “Song of Rainbow and Feather Dress.” Yang Yuhuan was considered the best performer of this dance. After she became the favorite concubine of Emperor Xuanzong (ruled 712-756), performances of this dance became increasingly elaborate.

Song Palace Dance. By the Song dynasty (960-1279) many dances were no longer performed, and the remaining dance programs were reformed and developed. Classic dance programs were performed on a much larger and more elaborate scale and combined singing and speaking parts with dancing. A new dance program, zhuanta (stepping repeatedly), appeared. The Song court continued to stage annual nuoli (nuo ritual) performances. (Nuo are gods who are able to keep demons away.) Every year the dancers of the palace dance schools performed ritual dances wearing masks of various gods.

Liao and Jin Dances. Dancers for the northern Liao dynasty (916-1115) performed many traditional works, especially Tang palace-dance programs, as well as Liao national dances, especially the Liao shaman dance. Following Tang protocol, the Liao court honored foreign emissaries with toasting and entertainments during a feast. After the toasts, foreign emissaries were requested to show their dances. The northern Jin dynasty (1115-1234) absorbed Song dance culture to a great extent and invented a dance called “lyrics linking wing rooms,” which separated the roles of dancer and singer.

Yuan and Ming Dance. Dance continued to decline during the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), becoming increasingly absorbed into or replaced by dramatic performances. Large-scale dance performances were influenced by the Yuan mask dance, hunting dance, and Buddhist dance. The best-known Yuan palace dance is “Sixteen Female Demons in Heaven,” which the government would not permit to be shown to common people. Another popular Yuan dance is

daola, meaning “singing and dancing” in the Mongolian language. Daola dancers perform to graceful music, attempting to imitate wind and snow while holding bamboo in their mouths and lamps on their heads. Dramatic performances became the main entertainment during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), and palace dance was largely reserved for ceremonial activities. Meanwhile, many folk dances and the dances of minority cultures were introduced at court.

The Rise of Folk Dancing. During the Song dynasty there emerged large folk-dance troupes that combined dance, music, martial arts, and acrobatics into shows they performed during holidays in the outdoor entertainment areas called spontaneous markets. Their dances included the wuxuan (spinning dance), based on the skill of spinning fibers into thread; a barbarian musical dance; shuadatou (tease the monk), a humorous dance inspired by a Ming marvel tale about a monk; and the huagu (flower-drum dance), one of the most popular dances. The dancers beat a drum while singing and dancing vigorous, unrestrained, and sophisticated steps. There were a total of twelve sets in the flower drum dance. The bold, powerful, and graceful wujian (sword dance) began evolving from martial arts in the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E. - 220 C.E.) and had become an exquisite dance by the Tang era. It has been said that many calligraphers absorbed the elements of the sword dance into their writings. Wupan (dancing judge) was about an ugly god destined to eliminate demons, and in puqizi (play with flags) dancers with colorful army flags depicted battle scenes. Other folk dances included chuntianle (happy farmland and village), hanlongzhou (land-dragon boat), zhumaer (bamboo horse), shizailang (ten Zailang officials), baolao (old Bao), baoluo (hold gongs), manpai (barbarian tune), tage (go to songs), shiziwu (lion dance), yaogu (waist drum), liangsanwu (sunshade-umbrella dance), huabanwu (flower-plate dance), and tengpaiwu (cane shield dance). Folk-dance dramas of the Tang era, such as tayaomang (stepping and singing woman), bo ton (move with head), and damian (big face) were the predecessors to later, full-fledged theater plays. Beautiful and talented female folk dancers were often called to palaces to perform. The Tai minority’s dances included chelile (happiness in a wagon), kongquewu (peacock dance), and mianyue (Burmese music). The Zhuang minority performed the dazhuangivu (pile-driving dance). The Miao minority had the lushengwu (reed-pipe dance), guwu (drum dance), and tiaoyue (jumping on the moon). The Yi minority loved its traditional torch festival, during which people danced Axi tiaoyue (Axi jumping on moon), sanyuesan (third of March), and tlaozuojiao (jump with the left foot). The Yao and Tu minorities were fond of the changguwu (long-drum dance) and baishouwu (sway-hand dance). Mongol dances spread widely during the Yuan dynasty, including daolay a “mast dance,” and a shaman dance known as andaiwu (peace-spokesman dance). The taipinggu (great-peace drum) dance and mangshiuou (rash dance) were legacies from the Manchu minority. The Tibetans often stood hand in hand in a circle and performed the tiaoguozhuang (dance around the hearth). They also liked the xuanziwu (string dance), reba, and mianjuwu (mask dance). Tibetan palace-feast dances included the naoma and an ardent duixie (tap dance).


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