Heroic tale of tragic lovers retold through dance

Source: China Daily

(Dance drama Cottonwood Tree in Stormy Days is staged in Beijing's Erqi Theater over Dec 12-13.[Photo provided to China Daily])

Around a century ago during the age of upheaval in China, a pair of revolutionary martyrs exchanged their vows, accompanied by a macabre rifle salute.

In 2002, this true story was adapted into a heart-wrenching dance drama entitled Cottonwood Tree in Stormy Days, winning the Wenhua Award, a top national award for the performing arts, in 2004.

After more than a decade, Guangdong Song and Dance Ensemble decided to stage the production once again, bringing it to Beijing's Erqi Theater for two performances on Dec 12 and 13.

The story took place during the Guangzhou Uprising of 1927 in South China's Guangdong province, where Communists attempted to wrest control of the city from Kuomintang forces.

Zhou Wenyong and Chen Tiejun, both leading members of the uprising, pretended to be a married couple in order to avoid drawing attention to their undercover work, but over time developed a real affection for one another.

After the uprising failed, they were betrayed, arrested and sentenced to death. Zhou asked for a photo with Chen as his final wish, and Chen made a speech, announcing to the public their love for each other.

Director of the dance drama, Wen Zhenya, says this reproduction is not a duplication of earlier versions of the show. He wanted the story to be historically accurate while keeping up with modern aesthetics.

In keeping with the story, the production incorporates iconic elements from Guangdong, including qilou, a streetside architectural form prevalent in the region, and kapok flowers, Guangzhou's floral emblem.

Using innovative stage design, the show aims to send audiences back in time.

"We present the stage as old, faded black-and-white photographs," Wen says. "Advanced technology today is able to produce rich colors on stage, but I want to go back and present the audiences with simplicity that evokes a sense of nostalgia."

While the stage, props and costumes are mainly in monochrome, it is contrasted with the bright redness of certain objects, creating a striking visual effect.

(Dancers in their 20s, Jin Chao and Wang Minrui (center), perform the male and female protagonists in the drama.[Photo provided to China Daily])

For example, as the female protagonist Chen Tiejun runs away from an arranged marriage at the beginning of the story, a red wedding ribbon is shown to bind her to the feudal marriage system.

Xiao Suhua, a professor from Beijing Dance Academy, says: "Its structure is a breath of fresh air. The scenes are smoothly connected and the performance is reserved yet expressive."

The martyrs Zhou and Chen were aged 23 and 24 respectively, when they were executed. To faithfully present their story, Wen chose dancers in their 20s to perform the roles.

"For the first production, the protagonists were designed to be senior Communists in their 30s; but for this new production, they are young adults, full of vigor and idealism," Wen says.

Young dancers from the ensemble, Jin Chao and Wang Minrui, took up the roles of the male and female protagonists, respectively.

The dancers say despite being set in a different era, the story resonates with them personally.

"I cannot truly feel what it is like living in that tumultuous era, but I understand their passion and aspiration. It is essentially a story about young people striving to make their dreams come true," Wang says.

Jin adds that since the production debuted in Guangzhou this September, he has gradually developed a deeper understanding of the character: "They are both aspirational, knowledgeable young people, who devote their lives to revolution. Even for today's young people, this story is stimulating and inspirational.

"In the final scene where their wedding takes place prior to their execution, the fact they could face death like that is both touching and romantic."

The ensemble decided to restage the dance drama to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China-and also the 70th anniversary of the ensemble's establishment this year.

"I believe that today's young people need the spirit of patriotism. Our life today is built on the sacrifice of countless young people like Chen and Zhou. We need to remember our heroes," Wen says.