Year of the Snake: Chinese artists perform in Cairo

Ati Metwaly, Thursday 7 Feb 2013

For three days, between 28 and 30 January, the Main Hall of the Cairo Opera House hosted artists from China. celebrating the Chinese New Year and Spring Festival

Photo: Sherif Sonbol

The performance given by the Hangzhou Institute of Opera and Dance Drama was part of a series of events organised by the Chinese Culture Centre in Cairo, a dynamic institution founded in 2002 to be "the first large-scale culture centre set up overseas by the Chinese Government in the 21st century".

The performance was held in the context of the Chinese New Year (also called Lunar New Year) celebrations, marking beginning of the Year of the Snake (10 February 2012 — 31 January 2014). The Lunar New Year also marks the Spring Festival, the most important festival in Chinese culture, spanning two weeks. In China and worldwide, the Chinese celebrate the New Year and Spring Festival with numerous activities.

It is in this spirit of celebrations that the Chinese Culture Centre has prepared a variety of events – film screenings, dance shows, hand craft exhibitions, etc. – that will continue to end of February across many locations in Cairo. The performance held by the Hangzhou Institute between 28 and 30 January on the opera's stage represented a compilation of separate scenes showcasing Chinese culture: traditional songs, theatrical and musical numbers.

The Hangzhou Institute of Opera and Dance Drama is one of the municipal cultural institutions of Hangzhou, a city with a population of over eight million, located in Zhejiang province in Eastern China. The institute consists of the Art Centre, the Opera Troupe, the Dance Theatre, the Orchestra and the Anime Theatre. According to information provided by the performance organisers, in its over 50-year-long history, the Hangzhou Institute has staged numerous operas and stage dramas and its troupes garnered countless awards. This was not the first visit by artists from Hangzhou Institute to the Arab World. In 2010, they collaborated with the Lebanese Caracalla Song and Dance Theatre and their international tours included a few visits to other Arab countries.

The administrative manager of the Institute – who presents himself as Samy Yang – speaks good Arabic, a language he studied in China. "I lived in Egypt between 2003 and 2006 and consider Egypt my second home," he says. According to Yang the troupe now visiting Egypt consists of 25 people, a small fraction of over 300 artists working under the Hangzhou Institute's umbrella. "Our visit is part of a bigger artistic cultural exchange between Chinese and Egyptian artists organised by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture. It is planned that the famous Egyptian Reda Troupefor folkloric arts will visit China in July 2013," Yang announced.

During the three evenings, the Opera's audience was invited to a colourful show rich in the traditions and flavours arts of China. According to Yang, the performance celebrating New Year and the Spring Festival was directed by Cui Wei, who also worked as one of the assistant directors of the opening ceremony performance of the China Olympics 2008.

The show was a small sample of a great performing arts tradition, characterised by its unique artistic vocabulary, precision and elegance. There are a series of well-known traditional Chinese dances, many of them with deep roots in the country's history and rituals. Some were entertainment for royal families, others emerged from rural celebrations of the people. The multitude of dances reflect the country's ethnic diversity and customs of different regions.

The performance included numbers such as the Dai shao duoli dance of three girls; a dance symbolically showing the art of paper-cutting; the long sleeve dance, whose origins go back to Chinese opera; a men's dance displaying the bravery and victories of Emperor Qin and his soldiers; and, among others, the famous peacock dance.

Some numbers no doubt captivated the imagination of the Egyptian audience. The dance for three men demonstrated remarkable physical flexibility combined with creativity of moevement. Equally the shao duoli dance underscored the blend light acrobatics with theatrical imaginativeness and brilliant coordination. However, the lightness and finesse expressed in shao duoli were missing in another number, entitled "A Girl of Paper-Cut for Window Decoration," a solo by a female who seemed to be struggling with her own limitations. In its turn, the peacock dance, also from the Dai ethnic group, imitated a peacock's movement with sophisticated body and hand gestures. Though well delivered, one would have wished to see this dance in richer costumes giving full justice to its captivating artistic tableau. 

A few numbers aimed at approaching Egyptian culture with cross cultural accents. A female solo singer performed Telaet Ya Mahla Nourha Shams El Shamossi, one of the most beloved classics by Sayed Darwish, covered by many Egyptian and Arab stars. The singer set the song in her high-pitched and intense, nasal voice, characteristic Chinese vocal traits. By the end of the show, a male singer performed Amr Diab's Tamally Ma'ak. Though he sang in Arabic, his remake carried a repetitive pop beat that killed the interesting Latin nuances present in Amr Diab's original hit. Topped with a few songs in Chinese, the singing numbers were not the strongest point of the show, recalling a karaoke entertainment, more fun for the performers than the audience.

One cannot deny importance of presenting Chinese culture and artistic traditions to the Egyptian audience. However such a task needs to be approached on an artistic level that does justice to the rich traditions of the performers' homeland. A short bio received from the event organisers testifies to remarkable achievements of the Hangzhou Institute of Opera and Dance Drama. I dare to believe however that the Hangzhou Institute has artistic and logistical capacities stronger than those presented in Egypt. A serious flaw of the performance was in the lighting design which, instead of creating an artistic ambiance, transported the audience to a disco on several occasions.

Last and not least was the logistical side of the whole initiative. The booklet distributed to the audience carries a brief explanation of each number, written in Arabic and Chinese. Unfortunately, the Arabic text seems to be a Google translation, often completely incomprehensible.  The printed material fails also to provide the names of the dancers and singers, a pity as several of them deserve to be highlighted for effort and skill.

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