Dunhuang Reflections by Choreographer Felix CHEN Lei – A Dance Poem “Flourishing in the Fusion” where Illusory and Reality Weaves

"Every Chinese dancer keeps in their heart the dream of Dunhuang. Re-interpreting the classic of the classics while ascending to a daring and creative breakthrough are tantamount to redefining the benchmark, challenging both the public perception and the established expectations of the academia."

In exploring the seed idea of the Dunhuang Reflections with the choreographer, Felix CHEN Lei, he first frowns, then depicts the scene floated in his mind at that time. "My head was loaded with bunches of clouds---not those splendid clouds of Dunhuang, but laden with suffocating dark clouds. I questioned myself, was I really capable of this?" Eventually, since the premiere of the Dunhuang Reflections in Hong Kong in 2015, it has been restaged in Hong Kong and Beijing five times in four years. Beyond the shadow of doubt, the haze in his head seems to have blown away.


By Tinny Cheng | Translated by Renee

However, Felix’s previous worries are not all highfalutin. Being an experienced coach graduated with a Master of Arts in Beijing Dance Academy, he specializes in Chinese folk dance, while the classic dance of Dunhuang comes from a different and unique stream. In addition to the dance of India and Western Region (referring to today's Xinjiang region) as well as folk dance, the dance of Dunhuang comprises a profound cultural connotation of the Central Plains civilisation. From the movement of dance, to the countenances and expressions of the dancers, they all contain the tradition of classical Chinese dance and aesthetic essence. Many movements which appear to be simple are extremely difficult to perform in reality. What’s more, difficulty has seemed to arise on how to amuse the audience again with a refreshing appeal of the Dunhuang mural paintings, of which its everlasting artistic glory has spanned over a millennium?

"For example, on the Dunhuang murals, there is a posture of ‘apsaras (celestial maidens) playing musical instruments’. The apsaras are those who dance and trail a long streamer in the sky, while the streamers are mostly an exaggerated drawing done by artists. When we use ribbon dance prop to perform on stage, how to present the dance while avoiding being conventional and unfashionable? Another example is ‘playing the pipa behind the back', which is the most classic dancing posture on Dunhuang murals and the superb skill of the apsaras. The key to doing so is to flip the pipa to the reversed position, then bend both elbows to place the pipa behind the neck to strum the strings from the back.  How to recreate the scene while matching with different outfits? These require careful consideration as well." Felix replies seriously.

Brushing out the classic Dunhuang impression with a contemporary edge

Finally, he conceives the concept of “flourishing in the fusion”. Drawing inspiration from the Dunhuang murals, he re-choreographs the dance fusing with contemporary aesthetic theory. In the fusion of the Dunhuang classical legends and the contemporary aesthetics, the illusive story comes into form and bursts beyond the traditional figurative representation of "Dunhuang". The creation is an interpretation of Hong Kong's "Dunhuang Impression” deriving from the artistic soul that being perfected through a millennium-long development.

After thousands of years of erosion and aging, the rosy face of many dancers have turned black.

Felix further explains that the "fusion" does not only refer to the fusion of Buddhist culture and the Central Plains culture, but also a fusion of ancient and modern development, and a fusion of traditional history and contemporary creative ideas. Following his ideology, the Dunhuang Reflections is a contemporary interpretation of the traditional classics by today’s Hong Kong, which “flourishes” the “cultural affinity” that transverses the two places and transcends time and space.

A fusion of cultures stretching back over a millennium, Dunhuang is also a museum of specimens of paint pigments. You will discover that after thousands of years of erosion and aging, the rosy face of many dancers have turned black. It is because the pigments are easily oxidized into lead-black colour under the humid and alkaline conditions of the clay surface. Those more recent paintings, however, are better preserved with their magnificent colors still endure. Felix accredits both Gerad CC Tsang, the famous Playwright, and the late Professor Wang Kefen from the­­­ Research Institute of Dance of the Chinese National Academy of Arts, who ignited him to derive inspiration from the massive resources of Dunhuang they generously provided.

I was inspired by the evolution of the pigments of Dunhuang. Time keeps moving forward, so as the color deviates and the aesthetic evolves. Be it painting or dance, only when we move with time, the vitality shall endure enternally, living for two thousand years or more.

“I was inspired by the evolution of the pigments of Dunhuang. Time keeps moving forward, so as the color deviates and the aesthetic evolves. Be it painting or dance, only when we move with time, the vitality shall endure enternally, living for two thousand years or more. Therefore, the Dunhuang Reflections should leverage on the evolution of various categories, such as stage effects, dazzling costumes and sense of aesthetics, to present a contemporary Dunhuang story emphasizing on both artistic and spectacular creativity.”

Affinity endures through restaging while inspiration about life ignited via the changes and illusions

For more than a millenium, Dunhuang has reflected the cultural characteristics and ethinical styles of different eras. Similarly, the Dunhuang Reflections has gone through serveral modifications in the past seven years. For example, in the section of Four Heavenly Kings performed last time, the dancers’ sleeves were turned into  scriptures. Approaching to the fourth re-run in Hong Kong, the work is going to be co-ordinated by the Hong Kong Dance Federation. Sparing no expense in his pursuit of perfection, it is worthwhile to look forward to the “Felix’s version of Dunhuang which reveals unconventional definitions while innovates with a contemporary gist”.

Last but not least, Felix wrapped up the interview with a dose of wisdom.  In addition to the stunning, beyond-the-realm scenes on stage and the presentation of contemporary stage aesthetics through the dance of Dunhuang Reflections, he hopes that the audience will share with the dancers an philosophical inspiration about life. In embracing the beauty of the truth that “change is eternal”, we contemplate “life and death, nature and man”, and mirror our inner selves through the illusory world.  

Dunhuang Reflections
Hong Kong Dance Federation
Inspired by the Dunhuang mural paintings, the choreography reinterprets the historical treasure in the light of contemporary aesthetics. Along the crest where the fusion of past and present flourishes, there weaves the artistic vision of Hong Kong into the Dunhuang Reflections. Postures of “apsaras (celestial maidens) playing musical instruments” and “playing the pipa behind the back” that appear in the realm of Dunhuang are presented in front of the audience through the dance, dancers’ bodies and countenances, fusing with stage effects and flamboyant costumes. All these combine to achieve a grand dancing poetry that emphasizes both aesthetics and visual pleasure. While the audience will be amused by the fusion of present and past derived from the aesthetics of Dunhuang, they will also share with the dancers a philosophical inspiration about life.
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