The late British historian Arnold Toynbee once said that if he were ever given the chance to travel back in time the period he would choose to visit would be that of the Tang Dynasty (which lasted from 618 to 907).
Characterised by prosperity, geopolitical strength and a tremendous blossoming of the arts and sciences, the era is widely viewed as the golden age of Chinese civilisation – and one that many Chinese still take pride in today.
So imagine the response to a dance that resurrects that glorious time? This year, to celebrate the Lunar New Year, Henan Satellite TV delivered exactly such a production, captivating millions of viewers across China.
Titled The Night Banquet in Tang Palace, the five-minute performance portrayed a group of court ladies travelling to the imperial palace in Luoyang (in the west of Henan and historically one of the two capitals of the Tang Dynasty) to stage a musical entertainment.
Adapted from The Tang Terracotta, an award-winning piece of choreography by Chen Lin of the Zhengzhou Song and Dance Theatre, the performance was supercharged by augmented reality technology that dramatised the backdrops and at one point even made the ladies look as if they were pottery figurines walking out of a museum.
A series of broader cultural references won further applause from an enraptured audience. To better imitate the plump-looking Tang Dynasty figurines, the dancers were dressed in robes lined with sponges. They were also caked in Tang-style make-up, with eyes painted in crescent shapes and lips into four-petal flowers.
The spectacle didn’t just pay tribute to the Tang Dynasty. In its opening scene, the dance displayed images of a range of national treasures such as A Thousand Li of River and Mountains (a Song Dynasty landscape painting); a ritual wine vessel from the Shang Dynasty; and a bone flute regarded as China’s oldest surviving musical instrument, dating back to around 7,000 BC.
“The Night Banquet in Tang Palace was meticulously crafted. I wish there could be more performances of such high quality in future,” applauded one netizen.
“A feast for the eyes! What a classic!” exclaimed another.
Broadcast on the first day of Chinese New Year, the Henan Spring Festival Gala topped the league table of variety shows on offer over the holiday period this year. Video clips of the dance have been viewed at least 46 million times on weibo, while related discussions have attracted more than 270 million followings.
With a production budget of about Rmb5 million ($770,000), Henan’s show has also earned favourable comparison with the more lavishly budgeted Spring Festival Gala on CCTV, the biggest of the state television variety shows.
To be fair, it is now an annual tradition for audiences to bash the CCTV production (see WiC225). This year it had deployed new visual technologies such as augmented reality to help welcome the Year of the Ox. However, the show ran into criticism for being racially insensitive (again) by blacking up Chinese performers to impersonate Africans. Unpalatable skits about so-called “leftover women” (young but unmarried women) also annoyed more liberal viewers and especially the singletons themselves, who commented widely online.
“The CCTV Spring Festival Gala is like a dead pig unafraid of boiling water. Blind to the torrents of negative reviews, its producers are self-congratulatory and uninterested in doing better,” fumed one of the most unimpressed commentators.
All of that means that organisers of the CCTV gala will be eyeing the rave reviews for Henan Satellite’s Tang dance production with envy. Perhaps it might even offer a little inspiration too. Of course, if the state broadcaster tried to do something of a similar ilk at next year’s event, netizens would soon be denigrating it for plagiarism…
(To watch the show, please visit here)
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