Famous artworks interpreted by ballet in a 'magical' show

Ma Yue
Tan Yuanyuan transformed world-famous paintings into dance in her latest work "Magical Night at the Art Museum," staged at Shanghai Oriental Art Center this week.
Ma Yue
SSI ļʱ

Tan Yuanyuan, prima ballerina of the San Francisco Ballet, transformed world-famous paintings into dance in her latest work "Magical Night at the Art Museum," staged at Shanghai Oriental Art Center this week.

As the joint choreographer and artistic director of the show, Tan gathered a group of contemporary and classical dancers from around the country. Dancers were asked to pick one of their favorite paintings to choreograph.

"I enjoy visiting art museums," said Tan. "Combining dance and painting is a new adventure for me. The two art forms share the similarity of being beautiful and inspiring. That's how I expect the performance to be."

Tan performed three pieces – "Carmen," "Crazy for Rene Magritte" and "Swan Lake."

Famous artworks interpreted by ballet in a 'magical' show
Ti Gong

The prima ballerina of the San Francisco Ballet is the joint choreographer and artistic director of "Magical Night at the Art Museum."

"Carmen" is dedicated to one of Frida Kahlo's self-portraits. In "Crazy for Rene Magritte," Tan wraps her face up with a scarf to look like the character in Belgian Magritte's 1928 work "The Lovers II."

"I always liked this particular painting," said Tan. "Lovers often keep part of themselves covered or disguised in a relationship. In the latter part of my dance, I take off the scarf, which symbolizes the end of the relationship. Then I imagine that the character becomes relieved, and dances accordingly."

Another famous painting featured in the show is Jan Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring."

Dancer Liu Lang watched Peter Webber's movie of the same name before creating the original dance "Behind the Smile" for the painting. She wanted to showcase the desire, passion, restriction and pain of the relationship between the painter and the household maid in the movie. "Behind the Smile" refers to the imaginary story behind the painting.

"I noticed that our dancers prefer paintings that leave them enough space for imagination and re-creation," said Tan. "The paintings arouse the dancers' desire to create and express emotions. And hopefully, the dances inspire audience empathy. That's the purpose of art, no matter whether it's painting or dance."

Famous artworks interpreted by ballet in a 'magical' show
Ti Gong

Ballerina Tan Yuanyuan wraps her face in a scarf to re-create the character in Rene Magritte's painting "The Lovers II" (below).

Famous artworks interpreted by ballet in a 'magical' show
Ti Gong

In another dance, the nihilism of a splashing ink landscape by Chinese painter Zhang Daqian was celebrated by contemporary dancer Xiao Fuchun. His choreography was bathed in strong oriental tones.

The show also drew on abstract art, like Mark Rothko's "Blue and Grey," which was the choice of Shanghai-born dancer Li Jiabo, a former principal dancer with the Hong Kong Ballet.

The performance ended with a group dance dedicated to Vincent van Gogh's "The Starry Night."

"Quite a few dancers had 'The Starry Night' on their list of favorite paintings, so we decided to end the performance with this painting," said Tan. "The last dance symbolizes a kind of integration – the integration of contemporary and classical dance, as well as the integration of dancing and painting."

As the artistic director, Tan said she gave full sway to the dancers' temperaments and innovation. There are improvisational interactions between Tan and others on stage in the last dance.

Famous artworks interpreted by ballet in a 'magical' show
Ti Gong

Liu Lang danced "Behind the Smile" dedicated to Jan Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring."

The vivid, creative quality of the show is enhanced by music played by a chamber ensemble on stage.

"We selected instruments carefully, like the classical guitar, the accordion and even the Chinese pipa, so that they fully complemented the dancers' emotions," said pianist and composer Qu Dawei, who was music director of the performance.

Shanghai is the sixth stop on a national tour for "Magical Night at the Art Museum." The performance will go to the cities of Wuxi, Fuzhou, Taiyuan, Chongqing, Chengdu and Kunming in the following month.

The tight schedule has challenged the stamina of the dancers, including Tan. At the age of 45, the Shanghai-born ballerina might be considered past the prime of a ballet dancer, but her passion for the stage has never faded with age.

Famous artworks interpreted by ballet in a 'magical' show
Ti Gong

The vivid, creative quality of the show is enhanced by music played by a chamber ensemble on stage.

"We started this project last November," said Tan. "There have been a lot of tiring, long-distance communications due to the pandemic. After the tour started, our staff had to go to a lot of effort to adapt the show to different theaters."

She continued: "But I myself have felt fully motivated since the start of the project. It's a new concept and experience for a lot of domestic audiences, especially those in smaller cities. In a way, we are reaching out to them to promote art and dance – something I am always willing to do."

"Magical Night at the Art Museum" added one performance to the three originally scheduled in Shanghai due to heavy ticket demand.

"Audience enthusiasm has given us the confidence to work on an improved version of the show," Tan confided. "More dancers may be invited to join in the future."

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