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Hong Kong Dance Company’s flagship production Red Poppies, based on A Lai’s award-winning novel, returns to the stage in its newest avatar. A report by Li Meng.
The Hong Kong Dance Company (HKDC) production, Red Poppies, returns to the stage for the fourth time in early June. It’s a dance drama based on the award-winning eponymous novel by A Lai. Under the direction of choreographer Liu Lingli, dancers from Hong Kong and Sichuan province have put together a fabulous display of Tibetan folk dance. The show looks back on a time when Tibet was ruled by clans of warlords, complete with depictions of cruelty, romance and human emotion.
The previous three iterations of the dance drama, in 2006, 2007 and 2014, drew positive reactions. For the 2019 edition, Liu tried to add newer elements to the show in the hope of making it resonate with today’s trends and tastes.
“Thirteen years have passed since Red Poppies’ Hong Kong premiere in 2006,” she says. “Adjustments to the structure, background music and set designs were necessary.” What have not changed, she emphasizes, are the themes of love, goodness and the longing for freedom, i.e. certain universal values informing the show that have been attracting audiences from across different regions and cultures over the past decade.
A novel effort
A Lai’s novel was published in 1998 and later won the Mao Dun Literature Prize, China’s most prestigious book award. A lively and thrilling epic set in Tibet, Red Poppies focuses on the destruction of the local chieftain system as the rise of opium production and trade changes the power balance. The story is narrated by the chieftain’s second son, nicknamed Bird Brain, and follows the feuds, desires and struggles for power within the chieftain’s family.
Soon after she read the story more than 20 years ago, Liu wanted to adapt it to a dance drama. However, it took her a while to find a script writer. “Almost all of the playwrights I had ever collaborated with said ‘no’ to me,” recalls Liu. “They just did not believe such a complex and multi-faceted piece of fiction was suitable for the medium of dance drama.”
Liu persisted, as she was completely taken by the simplicity and purity of the Bird Brain character and believed the connection between literature and Chinese dance could in some way bring new life to the old story. She spent nearly five years rearranging the original work, and finally worked out a simple but emotionally compelling way to retell the historical tale marked by an array of intriguing characters, panoramic settings and high drama.
Chen Rong, who plays Bird Brain, visited Sichuan province with co-dancers to carry out research into Tibetan folk culture and traditions. The 37-year-old dancer says preparing for the role was one of the “most difficult and challenging experiences” since he joined HKDC in 2002. “I needed to make a lot preparations, not only in technical but also in psychological departments,” he explains.
Chen is fascinated by the dramatic narrative, eye-catching costumes, and especially the strong emotions and sentiments expressed in the production which he believes will be shared and understood by people from different cultures. “It is not just about retelling old stories,” he says. “What we expect to do is to emphasize the importance of those human emotions informing the core of the story that will stand the test of time.”
Red Poppies tells the story of the decline of the Tibetan warlords in the face of the rise of Communism in China.
(HK Edition 05/31/2019 page12)