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Choreography, China and careers: The talent behind ballet show The Red Dress

CHINESE National award-winning ballet, The Red Dress, is coming down to Melbourne for an exclusive two-day performance in March 2015. Allan Tanoemarga interviewed its choreographer Sha Rina and lead performer Zeng Ming to learn more about the production, their respective creative process and careers.

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The excitement is high by the time the curtain opens. Marvellous figures will have taken their positions on stage – their faces smiling and their minds focused on what they have practiced for months, or years. Music swells in the background somewhere and soon enough the first motion is made. Here, the journey begins.

If you have watched a ballet performance before, the scene above might sound familiar. You might even guess what would ensue next: dancers swaying in their beautiful costumes all in an attempt to tell a captivating story on the tips of their toes.

The Red Dress promises all that, and something more. With its graceful dances, the ballet promises to deliver a beautiful yet bittersweet love story between two childhood friends, while at the same time painting the rich traditional southern China’s – especially the Zhejiang region’s – folk culture and customs. As the name properly suggests, the story will revolve around a red dress.

Speaking to Meld Magazine are The Red Dress’ choreographer, Sha Rina, and the lead male performer, Zeng Ming. Alongside hundreds of artists from China Ningbo Performance & Arts Group, the two will present The Red Dress in an exclusive two-day performance at the Palais Theatre in St Kilda next month.

When compared to other modern ballets, Sha Rina believed that The Red Dress stands out for its finesse in integrating historical background to the story.

“The Red Dress belongs to folk dance drama, which reflects the eastern Zhejiang regional culture, especially its marriage culture and local cultural customs… I think the simplicity and the intensive history contained in the work are important reasons for people’s acceptance and favour,” she noted.

Zeng Ming gave a similar remark, and further suggested why The Red Dress is not to be missed.

The Red Dress is the most beautiful among the dance dramas I have performed; the storyline, dance segment, music, stage design and costumes show the beauty of Zhejiang,” he professed.

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A group of male performers hard at work in The Red Dress. Image supplied.

Like most lavish stage productions, the grandeur of The Red Dress comes from the immense amount of creative energy invested by the whole production team. Zeng Ming, for instance, actually set aside some of his time to learn southern China’s culture upon receiving the leading role in the production.

“I read many southern [Chinese] movies and books, and went to the Red Dress Museum [to experience and feel the background story] for enriching and nurturing my soul!”

On top of that, he was also engaged in many other preparative works during the rehearsal, such as discussing and exploring his character’s persona with the director. This, he believed, would allow him to better understand his role in the production.

On the other hand, as a choreographer, Sha Rina was involved in a slightly different creative process in preparing herself for the production. While she also visited the Red Dress Museum to gain some knowledge on the background story, most of her inspirations for the choreography came from observing her surroundings.

“I especially focus on observation; my inspiration comes from the emotions of life [and from maintaining] a sensitive, curious mind. This point is very important.”

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The Red Dress’ dance choreographer, Sha Rina. Image supplied.

Evidently, there were various challenges these artists needed to overcome during the rehearsal process. For Zeng Ming, his biggest difficulties were mainly the lack of rehearsal day and the limited stage time his character has throughout the entire acts.

“We often rehearsed around the clock on three shifts… that we often forgot meal times!” he revealed, “[Also, since] the actors’ [stage time] is relatively few, [each of their] appearances must be very outstanding so that the audience [can feel] a deep impact from the actor. To do that is my biggest challenge.”

It was a different case, however, for Sha Rina. She confessed that she was frequently struggling to settle on the ideal dance action or formation that best expressed the characters’ inner feelings. She felt this may be due to the large amount of local cultures that needed to be considered on the entire production.

“Undoubtedly, the biggest challenge for a [choreographer] is to not only retain the characteristics of every folk [culture] but to also add artistic choreography using innovative modern techniques.”

Having said that, she believed that in the end, it was up to the main actors to “accurately express the true inner monologue with emotional development”.

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Zeng Ming, the male lead of The Red Dress with the female lead of the production, Cheng Lin. Image supplied.

All the sweat and hard work eventually paid off. The Red Dress has enjoyed great success since its debut, having been performed at various well-known Asian venues. It has also received various prestigious awards and excellent reviews following its world premiere in New York in 2014.

From this success, both Sha Rina and Zeng Ming were hoping to promote the culture and spirit of the Zhejiang people to a wider audience. In particular, they were confident in spreading this message through dance as a medium.

“Dance is a comprehensive aural and visual art. Compared with aural vocal music and visual painting, it can better express the character’s inner emotional complexity – the ups and downs – to make the audience better understand a scene,” Zeng Ming asserted.

Sha Rina shared the same argument, as she described dance as both a dynamic and complex art.

“Art of dance prominently demonstrates visual, aural, multi-space, multi-angle and multi-paradigm artistic expressions, so that people to closely feel the art in the appreciation process. [This sensation] cannot be rendered by other arts.”

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A group of female performers in the Chinese ballet production. Image supplied.

Just before the curtain closes, both artists hoped to inspire budding artists who wish to pursue their career paths.

In particular, both of them valued the power of not giving up. Zeng Ming admitted that his parents were not supportive at the very beginning, but he remained persistent. This eventually led to his parents’ acceptance of his career path, and later his admission to an esteemed dance academy in China.

As for Sha Rina, she encouraged any aspiring artists to maintain positive attitude – to be both “steadfast and persistent”. She was also convinced that her current career is something that she can never give up.

“Dance creation is full of magic; it gives you a feeling that can’t be understood by ordinary people, [but nevertheless] very enjoyable, with a lot of adventures waiting for you to explore and discover. I believe that people engaging in this career may have the same feelings, and I hope we continue to fly in the world of dance.”

The Red Dress will be performed at Palais Theatre, St Kilda on March 10 and March 11, starting at 7.00pm. This event is brought to you by the China Arts and Entertainment Group (CAEG).

Tickets from $24 to $70 are available online at Ticketmaster. For more information, please visit the Palais Theatre’s website.

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