September 1, 2008
The Other Chinese Extravaganza Country Banks on Big Tourist Shows With Hollywood Polish
By David Barboza
Midway through the grand spectacle "Zen Shaolin," a blue-robed monk on a huge outdoor stage crowded with martial-arts performers appears to banish evil spirits rhythmically with his fists in an artistic meditation of motion and fury.
The extravaganza, with a cast of 500, is staged after nightfall in a valley that sits before a huge mountain in central Henan Province, one of the cradles of Chinese civilization.
For those who were dazzled by the opening of the Beijing Olympics last month, that ceremony had its roots in shows like this one, which with government backing and private financing are drawing huge audiences to some of China's most scenic or historic spots.
The outdoor performances are part cultural event, part tourist attraction, with a dash of Hollywood and an intriguing blend of high and pop culture.
In the new China, investors and the government can team up to acquire a mountain, hire the Academy Award-winning composer Tan Dun and the internationally known dancer and choreographer Huang Dou Dou, and produce a spectacle that includes monks from the famed Shaolin Temple.
And an artist can dare to create music with the sounds of stones being slapped, wind whistling through the brush and recordings of monks chopping at water in a tub with their hands.
"The most important achievement of this production is that I invented the first rolling-stone orchestra," said Tan, the Chinese- born composer.
The project's investors spent more than $15 million to build a theater set in a valley below three mountains, one rising 1,500 meters, or 4,900 feet, with temples, a wooden pagoda, a martial- arts school, an arched bridge, a stream and a small village with a stone pathway.
One of the hopes of the producers was that "Zen Shaolin," which opened in May 2007, would bolster tourism in a province that has 100 million residents and has largely been left behind by China's economic boom.
And that has begun to happen. More than 300,000 visitors have seen the show in 16 months. (The production plays most days, except during the coldest winter months.) NBC came earlier this year to tape a segment that was broadcast during its Olympics coverage. The show employs a mixture of local people and professionals who are brought in.
With China pushing to commercialize its art and cultural industries, state-owned companies, music and theater troupes and even military dance ensembles are being encouraged to be financially independent and to create shows that might be exported to the rest of the world.
The government wants China to be seen in a new light (not as the old nation of Mao suits or a new generation of migrant factory workers), so that the country can market its rich cultural heritage and preserve some of its vanishing traditions.
Zhang Yimou, one of China's best-known film directors and the director of the Beijing opening ceremony, is one of the pioneers behind such shows; that was partly why he was chosen to oversee the Olympics extravaganza. Viewers of that spectacle saw a remarkable display of light and color; the magic that thousands of performers working in perfect symmetry can produce; and the rich symbols of China's past - the scroll, the lantern, Beijing opera, ancient Chinese drums and the wizardry of martial arts.
Mei Shuaiyuan, the producer of "Zen Shaolin," said he was approached by government officials in Henan in 2004. Mei had worked with Zhang to produce "The Impression of Liu Sanjie," an outdoor spectacular in the Guangxi region, in southwest China, and its popularity led to the creation of a series of shows produced by Zhang in other scenic spots, like Hangzhou, and Lijiang in Yunnan Province.
After Henan officials asked Mei to concoct an extravaganza near the Shaolin Temple, one of the founding places of martial arts, he researched Shaolin and Zen culture in the region and was given a copy of a famous Song Dynasty (960-1279) landscape painting called "Travelers Amid Mountains and Streams."
The painting, which depicts a huge mountain and a temple in a forest, helped inspire Tan, who won an Oscar for the film soundtrack to Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," and whose opera "The First Emperor" had its debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 2006 with Placido Domingo in the title role.
Tan said that if a scene like the one in the painting could be found in Henan, he would create music for the show. About six months later he was taken to Mount Song, one of the oldest formations in China, dating back more than two billion years.
"I said, If you can find a mountain like this, and make the monastery, I'll do it," Tan said. They did, and so he joined the team.
Along with Huang, Tan helped create a show that blends martial arts with Zen Buddhism, Tibetan music, dance and colorful stage portraits of scenes from ancient China.
Tan, 51, said he researched sacred music, visiting Buddhist temples and inviting Buddhists to perform for him. He consulted scholars and books on traditional Chinese music.
He moved to Henan briefly in early 2005 and brought in engineers to collect sounds and record a score for the spectacle. It mixes music from several ancient Chinese religions with his own style of organic composition, created with natural sounds, wooden blocks, flags snapping in the wind and even the noise of Shaolin warriors cutting the air with their martial-arts sticks.
He calls it his "Buddha Passion" music. "I wanted to use the trees and nature to make music out of this mountain," he said. "I wanted to dig something out of the mountain that is sacred."
Huang, who is known for creating elegant dances that combine martial-arts-like moves with Beijing opera gestures, choreographed pieces and movements to help visualize the music - and the sense of Zen Buddhism.
"I have always tried to mix kung fu and Peking opera with dance anyway," said Huang, 31, who is based in Shanghai. "Martial arts and Peking opera have a very special body language. Tan Dun wanted to mix the music and dance perfectly, so I spent a lot of time teaching the monks."
The production was aided by the Shaolin Temple, an ancient monastery that in recent years has become increasingly commercial. The temple, 1,500 years old, has an abbot who is referred to as its "chief executive"; he served as an adviser and investor and even offered temple monks as performers.
During the 70-minute show, villagers skip and dance and martial- arts practitioners perform in a kind of dreamlike state. Children execute flips; monks meditate in the foreground; women wash clothes in a brook; and other women pluck on ancient string instruments.
The producers say they were initially worried about the reception the show would receive from some government officials because it is a celebration of religion and sacred music as much as it is of martial arts.
But after a visit from Li Changchun, the nation's propaganda chief, everything changed.
"Last July the central propaganda department had a meeting here," said Li Chaohui, deputy general manager of the production. "Now," he said, "our show is becoming a postcard for Henan."
Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.
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