As part of the China Arts and Entertainment Group (CAEG) cultural exchange initiative, New Yorkers were treated to a breathtakingly beautiful production by The Shanghai Dance Theatre. Soaring Wings premiering at Lincoln Center over the weekend tells the story of the crested ibis. This rare “bird of good fortune” was brought back from the brink of extinction and has become the symbol of environmental protection, as nature and humans are shown to be interdependent.
The Chinese orchestral score by Guo Sida, is thematic. It weaves it’s magic throughout the intricate layers of the emotional story line by playwright Luo Huaizhen, who based this piece on the history of the ibis. Once a dominant bird in the Chinese provinces, by 1981 just seven wild crested ibis remained in China’s Shaanxi province. This started an international conservation effort to save the species. Soaring Wings traces this story starting in ancient China, to a future that learns to respect and honor. As the overture plays, backdrops and scrims that look like Chinese landscape paintings, come to life, as tree branches add a 3D effect, thanks to Zhang Jiwen. Lighting designer Xing Xin brings shadows and dimensions making this visually breathtaking, especially when you add the birds (dancers).
The story follows dancer Wang Jiajun, a human who loves the birds and falls for the lead bird. When he sees principal dancer and assistant artistic supervisor Zhu Jiejing, he is smitten, as is the bird. When we first meet the ibis’s, director/choreographer Tong Ruirui uses fluttering arms and hands to evoke feathers, as the dancers heads undulate, showing affection. Costume Designer Zhong Jiani uses fabric as feathers that are held by the dancer’s outstretched arms. The fabric flutters like wings and works well with the lighting, capturing the shadows and landscaping making them seem outer worldly. The dancers also mimic the crested ibis who have red feet, as their shoes have been partially dyed red. The sheer, orange-red fabric under the white fabric of their skirts is much like the under-feathers of the ibis. Their leotards have sparkles, which make it look like they are reflecting the sun. As the birds rotate their heads and shoulders, in unison and then with the smallest of individual gestures, they became uniquely different yet the same. When watching approximately 30 dancers rotating and moving as one it is a thing of beauty.
Chinese classical dance is not performed en pointe, but rather on toe. There are traces of modern with flexed feet, but plenty of lifts and keeps that defy gravity. Though this piece will remind you of Swan Lake, it is vastly different.
In Act One the birds are happy and free. They live as one with man. In Act Two man has polluted, pillaged and caused war. The birds as a result are dying in a series of writhing and convulsions. They end up spattered on tree limbs, reminding one of the BP oil spill. It is mass extermination, as the brutality of our actions sinks in. It heartbreakingly hits to close for comfort.
In the finale, we enter a museum where stuffed birds are placed in glass cases and in the center is the bird (Zhu Jiejing) who was loved by the man. The man, in pain at his loss, steps outside his emotions to teach the young children who have entered. The lesson here is to protect and nurture nature and he does so by passing on the ibis feather that his love gave to him.
Zhu Jiejing is an exquisite dancer whose emotional connection flows through every movement. Wang Jiajun leaps to heights that are astounding but over acts the part. The corp de ballet are graceful and elegant, displaying beauty and purity
Soaring Wings‘s plot line at times is muddled, but the message of what this show is trying to portray speaks volumes and visually this show is lush with artistic ability.
Soaring Wings, has closed but their next stop is Boston.