LiliTeng and the CAAM CDT’s annual production: Ode to Flowers

By Mike Xiong, Staff Writer

It was a gorgeous sunny Saturday on Oct. 4. The weather was comfortable enough that you could go out with just a light jacket and there was delightful breeze to clean up any trace of fog or haze for a perfect view of the natural beauty around you.  And in the evening, if you happened to be in the audience of the 2008 annual production performance directed by Lili Teng,principle, Chinese Dance Theater (CDT) of Chinese American Arts of Minnesota (CAAM), you would say to yourself, “What a beautiful day.”

The title of this year’s performance is “Ode to Flowers”; there were two performances on Oct. 4 and 5 in the O’Shaughnessy Auditorium at the College of St.Catherine.  The performance lasted about an hour and forty minutes. There were a total of four groups of acts starting with the prelude of Jasmine song and dance, and ending with Ode to Peony.

What a beautiful Jasmine originated in the east coast of China as a folk song. After many years of artistic fine tuning and re-creation, this short song started to be popular.  Recent media introduction has made this song known around the world.  I remember last summer, when my family took a summer road trip to Boston; we were attracted by a street musician playing with a hand moved music spinner at the outside of a subway entrance.  When she knew that we were originally from China, she promptly played a Chinese song to us.  Guess what, it was. What a Beautiful Jasmine.  It was perhaps first and only Chinese song she mastered.

The four flower themed dances were:

1) Ode to plum, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum;

2) Adoring the Lotus;

3) Plum Blossom;

4) National Beauty and Heavenly Fragrance.

Those four groups represent the flowers which traditional Chinese intellectuals admired and praised.  There were hundreds of flowers in natural world in ancient China’s living environment, then why were only these few picked up and praised with numerous poems by some very famous poets in history?  Chinese ancient observers, especially the intellectual, appreciated natural traits of the flowers which represented characteristics or traits that Chinese intellectuals,influenced by Confucian ideology, admired. 

For example, plum, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum were proclaimed “Four Noblemen”by Confucian intellectuals because the flowers of those plants give people a feeling of elegance, humility, clear of corruption (moral order), and enthusiasm. People appreciated the challenging nature of the plum against the falling snow as encouragement that warm days were not far away.  Orchid represents elegance and nobility, bamboo for purity and consistency and chrysanthemum for regal and enthusiasm.

Lotus was another good example. Lotus grows in south China where the ancient Chustate was located.  Famous political strategist and artist Chu Yuan (in whose memory Dragon Boat Festival originated)served Chu state and was angered by corrupted officials around him.  He personalized himself as lotus in his artistic works indicating that he was a moral, elegant and pure thinker and practitioner of the time when everyone around him was corrupted and abused their positions of power.  The lotus flower vividly represents that character as it grows up from a muddy and dirty lake base and becomes so colorful and so pure.

The peony has been selected by Chinese as their national flower.  The reasoning behind this also indicates Chinese national characteristics which are magnitude, colorful red and far-reaching fragrance.

The stage design, costumes, accompanying music and various performing tools were all impeccable. In addition, the narrator’s accurate Chinese translation and background introduction added enjoyable level for audience members whose native language is not Chinese.

As the performance proceeded, the audience was so absorbed by the artistically arranged and multi level of presentations simultaneously presented by the dancers, accompanying music, colorful costumes, colorful lights and stage effects.  By the end of each act, the audience gave a sincere appreciation applause which lasted just long enough before the next act.  I really appreciated the director’s hard work and design.  Unlike a movie, dancing is only one aspect of art by using human body language to express some ideas and beautiful scenes.  There were not many things you can draw from the plot when you are talking about flowers. So to design and direct such performance that last long enough to be called an evening program is not an easy task.    

This performance was a delivery of a year-long project. Teng is general manager forthis challenging project.  Each year, she selects a main theme for the project. She has to consider many aspects to decide whether that theme may help the local audience’s understanding of Chinese culture.  She also must consider how the resources under her command meet the need of presenting the theme.  Teng’s dance training program with more than one hundred kids and some adults was her principle resource.  She had to target her performance goal with training so that when the time is right, the little actors and actresses should be to execute their learned skills and body languages.  Besides training, there were music, stage art and light design that needed to match the theme selected.

Teng was a renowned dancer and director in China before she moved to Minnesota in the late 1990s.  She used to train and direct professional performers.  When she directed a dancing program there, she could draw the rich skills and a tank of talents to serve the performance goal. 

In this instance, Teng’s resource was a group of enthusiastic students and parents who were all fans of Chinese traditional dance. No student or staff could be committed full time to training andrehearsals only for this performance. There was no existing institute locally that can handle the requiredcostumes as well as stage design and music. So Teng had to consider all those elements before launching aperformance project like this themed dance program.

Fortunately,Teng’s task was made easier because this was not the first time she was orchestrating such a performance in the Twin Cities.  She also had an excellent team that worked hard to provide best services including, IT service; recruiting talents; music compilation;costume design and creation; stage art design and development; and other administrative assistance.

Again,this year’s performance was a great success. It has enriched our community cultural life and helped local people’s understanding of Chinese civilization. Based on the past experience, we can reasonably expect that another high-quality performance will be delivered next year.    

“Ode to Flowers” Appreciation Show by WeiweiXie

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