Princess Zhaojun: a timeless tale

“Princess Zhaojun” Photo: Courtesy China National Opera & Dance Drama Theater.

A breathtaking production tells the story of an iconic Chinese heroine from 36 B.C., a story about peace and the power of the individual that is still relevant today

By Mary Gregory

The wedding dance alone was worth the trip. A row of richly-costumed, superbly choreographed women dancing as they wore candle-topped hats was dazzling. Their fluttering skirts seemed borne on air, while in reality, it’s the mastery of the China National Opera & Dance Drama Theater that carried “Princess Zhaojun” to artistic heights. The March 21-24 performances at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater were the debut of a new dance drama based on the life story of Wang Zhaojun, an iconic heroine of Chinese culture.

Known as one of the “Four Beauties of ancient China,” Zhaojun is one of history’s larger than life women, famed for her beauty first, but also for her acumen, bravery and selflessness. She’s a kind of Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, Joan of Arc and Eleanor Roosevelt rolled into one, dressed in imperial silk. Zhaojun’s story has been told by the Peking Opera, in more than 700 poems, in literature as far back as the second century and, more recently, on television and in movies. While Chinese audiences may not have needed help to follow a tale possibly as familiar to them as Romeo and Juliet, for others, monitors explained the story.

The opening act presented a smoky graveyard scene. It was clear something was amiss. From there, we traveled to a fabulous court filled with elegantly dressed women folding clothes, meant to suggest Zhaojun’s tedium. The story goes that Han Emperor Yuan selected her as one of his 3,000 concubines in 36 B.C. An accomplished musician (her pipa, or Chinese lute, was frequently on display) as well as an artist, Zhaojun wanted more from life. When emissaries of the Xiongnu peoples from the wild outer reaches of the empire started rumblings of dissent, the emperor offered a marriage to make peace. Zhaojun volunteered. Seeing her role as peacemaker and protector of her people, she left the comfort of the court, traveled to the distant edge of civilization, and married Huhanye Chanyu, king of the Xiongnu, who won her heart with gestures of kindness and protection.

The story offers chances for an enormous range of dancing, music, staging and costumes. In a particularly moving sequence, Zhaojun was seen being presented, like a precious doll, swathed in diaphanous orange robes that were delicately unwrapped. Battles were fought by warriors who tumbled and leapt with athletic vigor and grace. Whole troupes of ladies in waiting floated weightlessly on skittering feet, their upper bodies still, as they glided. Veils of color and smoke filled gorgeously painted backdrops as music that combined the plaintive voice of violins with thumping drums, chants and exotic sounds filled the air.

With over 50 magnificently costumed dancers depicting the splendor of the imperial court, as well as warriors in the wilderness, weddings, death scenes, and a spectacular ghost-dance in which Huhanye Chanyu returns from the dead to express his love for Zhaojun in her dreams, the visuals are breathtaking. The production gave the sense of stepping into a living classical Chinese painting, as it recounted a moving story without words.

The troupe, part of the Chine Arts and Entertainment Group, is supported by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the People’s Republic of China. Both the dance itself and the creativity of the production were outstanding. Zhaojun’s character filled the stage with energy and grace; her solos were extraordinary.

It would be hard to imagine anyone leaving “Princess Zhaojun” without a lasting memory of the production and the woman it portrays. Though its timeliness couldn’t be more perfect, arriving during women’s history month, this heroine’s story, told with elegance and artistry, with its emphasis on peace, cooperation, the power of the individual, selflessness, shared responsibility and love, is a tale for our and every age.