China’s highly acclaimed musical dance Tales of 12 Chinese Zodiac dazzles audiences at Melbourne’s Palais Theatre with a jaw-dropping performance filled with dance artistry, cinematic display and glorious costuming.
A cast of 50 from China Oriental Performing Arts Group takes to the stage to showcase the vitality of the Chinese zodiacs, capturing each animal’s characteristics in this contemporary art form. The choreography of each zodiac is entirely purposeful and masterful—not one movement is unintentional.
Divided into four acts (seasons), the story follows the characteristics of 12 important historical periods of China, exhibiting every zodiac animal’s character traits from ‘The Ox pasturing in the Wild’ to ‘The Dragon returning to the Origin’. A series of professional musicians accompany the dancers on stage to capture the raw elements of each season, using instruments from Eastern and Western cultures. Originating from ancient times, when Chinese ancestors categorised years by animal signs, the Chinese zodiac bestows its individual characteristics to those born in its corresponding year.
The 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac represent the most important and symbolic part of traditional Chinese culture,” says Shen Chen, director and choreographer. “I would like to show the circle of life, the circle of the four seasons and the circle of nature through dance and music.
This opening piece is the perfect tone to begin the production. Usually associated with endurance, honesty and diligence, the characteristics of the ox are captured using only a handful of movements. The first half of the routine is purely lunges and body arches but the intensity and the execution of lines are the defining features that make the ox’s piece so eye-catching.
The tiger is up next and the audience is confronted with deep drum beats. The first section is performed in partnership, completing acrobatic movements over drum squares in a fiery and fearless manner. Tigers are universally well respected for their courage, however they are quick to change emotions when encountered with the unexpected. The most exquisite part of this scene is the cinematic ending where the dancers perform a series of slow-motion upper body waves as if they are running in an animal pack. Behind them on a silkscreen, the golden tiger is projected running mightily into the audience, providing a truly awe-inspiring 3D cinematic experience.
Known as meek and isolated, the goat’s characteristics are reflected in the performance by a male soloist. The goat is whimsical at times as he showcases his athleticism and acrobatic ability through jumps and turns but, on the whole, he is graceful, poised and unstirring. The beauty in the choreography and the real-life characteristics of a goat make this piece visually spectacular.
Murmurs suddenly spill from the audience as the rats come on stage, eagerly representing the unclean, uncouth and cunning zodiac. A group of male dancers demonstrates a hysterical display of comedic acrobatics using a chair and table. Exclamations and mid-performance applause can be heard from the stalls as spectators watch in awe of the difficulty of the choreography. Despite their nasty qualities, these particular rats create a warm and friendly atmosphere that makes the audience instantly fall in love with them.
As an Australian, we tend to think of snakes as being poisonous, venomous and penetrating. In this particular production, the snake is feminine, artistic and beautiful, as she slowly grazes her way through life in the most elegant of fashion. One white snake performs a solo while approximately 14 green snake ensemble dancers carve the grassy path for her to travel. This soloist snake is extremely flexible, using her hyper-mobile back to create that particular animalistic quality.
This monkey has an army of male dancers using bamboo sticks to exhibit the brilliance and agility of the zodiac that is known for its perseverance and wit. Heavily rooted in the percussion element, a flock of dancers shows dominance on the stage, always locomoting in choreography and performing complex partner lifts. The most intricate part of this piece is when all the bamboo sticks come together to lift the monkey up like a raft, placing him on a pedestal.
One of the softer animals in the zodiac, this tender rabbit showcases a new kind of gentleness with the men wearing flowing skirts and the single female rabbit wearing a clear but sequined bodysuit. This piece is highly tactile, performing interwoven partner work and contact choreography throughout, which reflects the rabbit’s need to be with others at all times. The constantly flowing movements seep into one another, allowing audiences to move their heads in tune to the dancers’ steps. This zodiac is sensitive and compassionate, a refreshing change from the monkey’s defiance.
Dogs are renowned for being loyal and trustworthy, and this piece takes the element of friendship to new heights. The choreography is highly playful as the dancers piggyback on one another and wag their tongues. A sombre element occurs near the end when the dog is left alone, but it is later reunited with its ensemble and all is well again. It reflects the characteristics of loyalty, honesty and integrity that the dog holds dear and shows that a dog will never leave its owner or partner.
In Western culture, the pig is associated with mud and grunts, but in Chinese culture these pigs are playful, charming and naive. They carry Chinese lanterns on their shoulders in the hope to hang them on the front of their homes as a means of spiritual protection. The dancers puff their cheeks with air and parade baggy red pants to make them appear stout. With smiles on their faces, the dancers delight in the cheeky bottom wiggles, showing off their tiny twirled tails.
The blissful pig is a huge juxtaposition to the horse, which elicits a some-what Trojan entrance where the dancers hide behind the covered tables and pop out in a very serious and dramatic manner, catching the audience off-guard. The dancers perform a highly intricate and fast-paced arm sequence that demonstrates the characteristics of liveliness and freedom. The long white mane of hair on each dancer’s head flutters elegantly as they gallop to the piercing drum beats.
The rooster unveils qualities similar to a phoenix as it is born from the ashes to present its beauty and intelligence. The rooster is performed by a single female artist who is absolutely meticulous in her body language, mimicking the contracting nature of a rooster to perfection. Her arm waves in isolation and her body is elongated with extreme flexibility. She is perched on the top of the set for most of her solo and flies off to perform in true grace and confidence. The rooster is an independent zodiac, roaming freely with earnestness and responsiveness.
The dragon is the mightiest of zodiacs, parading a sense of authority over others. This display features nine athletic dancers wearing all white and dragon-scaled designs on the arms and upper body in different colours. These dragons are not as serious as the horse but, rather, showcase a sense of power and ambition by inviting creative formations and free-flowing choreography that is tactile, fiery and revolutionary.
China Oriental Performing Arts Group comprises China’s finest music and dance performers, who represent the highest standard of music and dance art in China. Having performed across their country, they have also toured five continents covering more than 70 countries and regions.
Above all, Tales of 12 Chinese Zodiac is one of the most artistic shows currently on display. It is an exquisite exhibition of cinematic and artistic dance execution. Director Shen Chen should be commended on producing a highly enchanting work that bypasses the barrier of language to speak evocatively to all international audiences.