Published: 15:53, May 17, 2024
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Drama as dance in new production of Thunder and Rain
By Zhang Kun
Zhao Xiaogang is the choreographer of the dance drama production Thunder and Rain, which will be premiered at Shanghai Oriental Art Center on July 25, 2023. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

One of the most famous plays in modern Chinese literature, Thunder and Rain, will be adapted for the first time into a dance theater production.

Produced by the Shanghai Oriental Art Center, the show will be choreographed by Zhao Xiaogang and is set to premiere on July 25.

Thunder and Rain — which is also known as Thunderstorm — was the first play written by Cao Yu (1910-96), the pioneer of the stage drama genre, in 1934.

Since then it has been widely performed in theaters, folk operas, TV series and movies.

"We browsed through all the important works of modern Chinese literature, and chose Thunder and Rain, because it powerfully condenses the problems of society in the past century through a series of dramatic conflicts one evening between two families that are the result of 30 years of events," says Gu Shengyin, producer of the show.

Zhao says at the news conference announcing the show: "The play is a suspense in which one secret is unveiled after another, and readers become intrigued to dig out the hidden past of the family."

"The challenge for us is how to peel away layer after layer, the secrets, conflicts and the repressed emotions of the characters, through body language instead of dialogue," he continues. "To achieve this we needed dancers who are also great actors at the same time for all eight principal roles."

Two dancers showcase moves from the upcoming production. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Founder of Beijing's Xian Wu Ren dance studio, Zhao is known for his national award-winning creations inspired by traditional Chinese art, from Buddhist murals and ink paintings to literary classics.

"It will be a great show if the dancers are able to successfully present the distinct personalities of each of the main characters in signature dance moves and solo performances," he says.

Shan Chong, artistic director of the China Opera and Dance-Drama Theatre, will be playing the female lead as Lu Shiping, a maid seduced by the young master of the household, Zhou Puyuan.

After giving birth to an illegitimate son, Lu is kicked out, her baby is taken away from her, and she is forced to live in poverty with a working class husband. She returns to the Zhou household 30 years later, only to find her children bullied and harassed by the young masters and is burning with love and hatred, consumed by the contradicting emotions, Shan says in a video message.

"Part of her accepts her fate, while another cannot and is indignant. It is a great challenge to present the depth and complexity of all these emotions, as well as the cultural background of the character."

The production features a group of 16 male dancers, who Zhao believes "will be powerful to present the play's emotional momentum and conflicts".

"We want to present a modern interpretation of the story," says Lei Wen, general manager of the Shanghai theater. "If the audience sees the settings, costumes and music they imagined, we will have failed. … We will be faithful to the original play, but we have to find new ways to present it."

As one of the prime theaters in Shanghai's Pudong New Area, the Shanghai Oriental Art Center has frequently presented dance and theater adaptations of literary classics from all over the world, among them Don Quixote, Anna Karenina and Hamlet, which have been warmly received, according to Gu.

"Few modern, contemporary Chinese literary works have been adapted to dance theater, and we want to give it a try."

After five performances, the production will tour the country, and Lei hopes to introduce Thunder and Rain to international audiences and take the production on tour abroad at a later date.