Beijing Breakfast Letter April 29, 2011 Peony Palace Ballet

Let's talk about food some more.  Everyday I try to have a Western salad:  iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, radish, and chopped fresh ginger or red onion.  Their cucumbers are delicious.  They're skinny and bumpy, sometimes the shriveled flower is still attached, with super flavor.  I try to get as much raw veggies as I can, so I like to add some grated carrot.  Their carrots are husky dudes, bumpy, and with specks of mud.  Everything served raw has to be washed well.  Sometimes I'll have spinach to add.  There's two kinds of tomatoes I've noticed.  There is the regular Early Girl type, sometimes you'll see a big one.  The Chinese love the sweet, little grape tomatoes which they eat for a snack.  I haven't seen salad dressy anywhere, so I shake up a jar with olive oil, Chinese wine vinegar, seasoned soy sauce, salt, pepper and mayonnaise. I also haven't seen any olives.  Anyone coming to visit me, please bring a jar.


It's not entirely true no salad dressing.  They do have jars of Kewpie thousand Island next to the Kewpie Mayo.  That's Kewpie as in Kewpie doll.  Anyone remember what that is?  The time capsule at 1933 NY World's Fair contained one.  A Kewpie doll was mentioned in The diary of Anne Frank.  John Steinbeck mentioned it in Of Mice and Men in the 1930's.  A Kewpie doll was used to smuggle plutonium in a Get Smart episode in 1968.  Many other citations for any of you interested to look it up.  The creator, Rose O'Niell, was a writer and illustrator for Ladies Home Journal in 1909 and became rich and successful in the media business, at that time rare for a woman.


Thursday they started mowing the lawn, the air is floating with cottonwood floss, birds chirp, and the park is filled with families with baby rollers and toddlers.  The yellow, double rose I'm sending you today is unnamed.  It's not the several listed in Google, so we will have to enjoy her mystery.  Small trees of Davida involucrate, the Dove Tree, are blooming.  It actually is in the dogwood family (Cornaceae) and is native to China.  I think the similarity to dogwood is pretty obvious, do you agree?


It's been a roller coaster ride the past couple days.  Riding up to the stars, I got invited to see a contemporary ballet, Peony Pavilion, at the Tianqiao Theater in downtown Beijing, a new and beautiful palace of culture.  It is big enough, with two balconies, to hold a crowd, but it's intimate enough to see the musicians in the pit and facial expressions on the dancers.

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The National Office of Foreign Experts sponsored the performance and distributed tickets throughout the city to employers having FE employees.  Tsinghua provided a bus and a Chinese fast food burger for dinner as we rolled downtown.

The traditional story, a Kunfu Opera by Tang Xianzu from 16th century Ming Dynasty, is a Romeo and Juliet theme with a macabre twist and, in the traditional Chinese opera, lasts twenty hours.  Thankfully, this contemporary version with a new musical score and set for modern ballet was only two hours.

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This piece is the first dance drama directed by Li Luiyi, from the Beijing Peoples' Art Theater and the first full length ballet choreographed by Fei Bo, a young artist from the National Ballet of China.

In the story of a sleeping girl and two of her two alter egos, her sensual self is in red performed by Huasheng Liniang, and her traditional, and my personal favorite, self is performed by a traditional opera artist, dropped into this contemporary production.

In sumptuous robes with huge sleeves, elaborate train, makeup and stylized gestures, she glides in a strange centipede fashion she looks like she's not moving while moving.  And that voice!  Strange vocalizations, bits from the original opera, delivered with poise and strength.  At one point she slips out of blue robe, revealing a lighter robe beneath, and finally down to a third white costume, as the girl dies, like a chrysalis in reverse.  In fact, many odd juxtapositions that captivated me and kept me eager to see the next and the next surreal detail.  Andre Breton would have loved this performance.

Zhu Yan, dancing the female lead Du Liniang, and Hao Bin, the male Lin Mengmei, are fabulous as is the entire troupe of girls, rustics, the hell scene with the King of Hell in red beard and his yin and yang imps, a crown of ghosts.  Hunch backed in wispy shrouds, carrying detached heads with  floating, blue light eyeballs.

The sparse sets by designer Michael Simon thrilled my surrealist heart with giant crumpled peonies like alien ships, giant dead branch hanging across the entire stage width, freakish flower pods that suddenly drop from above, tilted platforms, ligthing, fluttering things falling.

I was joyous at the Chinese inspired ballet costumes by Oscar winning Japanese designer Emi Wada that clung to the body or spun out in tiers instead of the fluffy tulle that comes to mind when you think of ballet.

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An interesting motif of one ballet slipper, somewhat reminiscent of Cinderella, that threaded its way  through the story.  The gruesome story line begins with a pretty girl who pines away and dies of love sickness, and then she goes to the underworld of the dead to beg to be given a body to return to find her dream lover.  They are finally reunited in a grotesque wedding finale, perfectly complemented by the contemporary approach to the set, the psychological subplots and the sometimes creepy music.  This performance exceeded my expectations, and I hope to see more Beijing ballet.

Still, underneath, Cheryl is feeling glum and a little discouraged, my mood oddly matched and ripened by the death/love ballet theme, evocative imagery, colors, lights and music.  Riding my bicycle home late at night through canyons of streets, theatrical and ghostly in the street lamps, the feelings drifted down in a slow spiral.  My own hell imps questioning me, why, why?  And what is the point?  And does everything have to have a point?  Or is it enough to get up everyday and plod through the wheel of dharma around and around.


Peony Pavilion