Review: A dazzling Confucius makes its American debut

The strength of Confucius, a 90-minute dance piece featuring 60 performers from the China National Opera and Dance Drama Theater, is not found in its efforts to present Confucian philosophy and biography, nor even Chinese history and culture, none of which are especially illuminating. The show’s strength lies in its visual splendor and gymnastic choreography.

Making its American debut this week at Lincoln Center and next week at the Kennedy Center, the piece premiered in Beijing in 2013, conceived by Kong Dexin, its elegant 34-year-old director and choreographer.  One could argue she was born to do this show. Ms. Kong is a direct descendant (a “77th generation descendant”) of Confucius (in Chinese known as Kong Zi, or Master Kong), the teacher and philosopher who lived 2,500 years ago.   Since the show’s Beijing debut, she has served as a sort of cultural ambassador, her show touring Europe, Asia and Australia.

Hu Yang as Confucius in Confucius at Lincoln Center (Jan 5-8) and The Kennedy Center (Jan 13-15). Photo: Liu Haidong)

More photos at NewYorkTheater.me

Confucius focuses on the 14 years that the sage journeyed throughout a war-torn China on a mission to introduce his teachings, before returning home to write his six classics. Almost no words are spoken on stage. (A few are sung.) Rather, an LED captioning screen on either side of the stage flashes the titles of the six main sections of the piece, as well as the scenes within each section, which the dancers then illustrate.  So, after “Act II: Out of Food,” there is another caption “Food handed out in contempt,” which is illustrated with black-clad soldiers acting with contempt towards men and women wearing peasant garb.

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Confucius at the Kennedy Center

January 13-15, 2017
Details and tickets
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In various scenes, set to traditional Chinese music, we see Confucius (Hu Yang) at court; at an altar under the almond tree giving lectures;  in a blizzard with the poor; in a dream of “Great Harmony” (the name of Act III) —  interacting with a Concubine (Tang Shiyi), unsuccessfully advising a Duke (Zhu Yin), fleeing a Minister (Guo Heifeng).  We are treated to an occasional Confucian aphorism on the screen (“As soon as I long for goodness, goodness is at hand,”) but the show is primarily a showcase for spectacle and movement.   The program provides a helpful synopsis of what is happening on stage  (“Confucius became involved in a conspiracy in the court and was forced to flee for his life.”) – or, to put this more accurately, gives us the dramatic context for the dancing.

The optics are stunning from the get-go, when, after a few seconds of a realistic-looking video showing the dramatic landscape of Zhou Dynasty China (complete with dark clouds gathering overhead), the curtain rises to reveal row upon row of performers bathed in stage smoke and glowing blue light, then glowing yellow, then glowing red. In alternating rows, the men — dressed in bright blue billowing robes with flowing sleeves – and the women — in deep red – leap and bounce and bow, and then circle one another with dignity and grace.

The designers of Confucius are among its brightest stars – stage and lighting designer Ren Dongshen,  makeup designer Jia Lei, and especially costume designer Yang Donglin, whose palette is brilliant, bold and broad, from luminous white to dangerous black. The browns in this show are gold, the greens are jade. This is a visual jewel of a show, and, if it doesn’t deliver on its implicit promise of enlightenment, a saying attributed to Confucius seems apt: “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without. ”

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Confucius is on stage at The David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center through January 8, followed by an engagement at the Kennedy Center January 13-15

Tickets and details at Lincoln Center

Tickets and details at the Kennedy Center

 

Jonathan Mandell About Jonathan Mandell

Jonathan Mandell is a third-generation New York City journalist and a digital native, who has written about the theater for a range of publications, including Playbill, American Theatre Magazine, the New York Times, Newsday, Backstage, NPR.com and CNN.com. He holds a BA from Yale and an MA from Columbia University, and has taught at the Columbia School of Journalism and New York University. He blogs at http://www.NewYorkTheater.me and Tweets as @NewYorkTheater.

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