Early in his epistolary romance The Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethe paints a scene in which the doomed, noble hero encounters a servant girl at a well. The year was 1774, a mere two centuries or so ago. But that bucolic, pre-industrial scene is as unimaginable to our modern minds as the day before e-mail. In The Feast of Han Xizai, the Han-Tang Yuefu Ensemble takes a modern audience on an exotic, ethereal, floating trip through time and space to Tenth Century courtly China, to the poignant drama of the impending collapse of the Southern Tang Dynasty expressed in dance and music theater.
Han-Tang, founded by Ms. Chen Mei-o, represents a fusion of classical Seventh-Century Nanguan (“Southern Winds,” as in flutes) music with narrative “Pear Garden” musical dance theater, specifically that of the Tang and later Yuan Dynasties. The Feast of Han Xizai is a scholarly work visually based on the eponymous painting in the National Museum of Beijing: indeed, the performance brings the painting—and its historical actors—to life. The story concerns the psychological abdication of Han Xizai (Chen Shaw-chi), an official, to a downward-spiraling life of decadent self-indulgence in reaction to forces of political corruption he feels impotent as an individual to stem. Actors in his painted life include the dancing concubine Wang Wushan (played by the words-fail Hsiao Ho-wen), the literary talent Lang Can (Lin Fang-Yi) and scholar Chen Zhiyong (Lee Yi-hsiu)—both lecherous for Wang, and Monk Deming (Lee Wei-chun), along with a bevy of serving girls and musicians.
The gestural movements are highly stylized and relentlessly, tightly choreographed. Indeed, the performers’ abrupt wrist-snap end-moves express their roots in Han string puppets, eliciting endearing and attention-retaining reflexive responses.
The music, performed on authentic instruments comprising “ten sounds”—vertical flutes (xiao), plucked lutes (long-necked sanxian and pear-shaped pipa), drums and dancers’ hand percussives (including chimes, bells, and xylophone), and the songs—with lyrics drawn from Tang poetry, elegiacally whispers the historical scores of “Four Seasons in Eight Scenes,” evoking poignant moods—from pensive to somniloquent to florescent and, ultimately, fatalistic.
Yip Kam Tim’s costumes define the audience experience as much as the music and dance. Authentically depicting those in the painting, they are at once transportive and thaumaturgic—from Xizai’s diaphanous, multilayered, tinted peach tile-patterned habiliments to Wang’s jade- and gold-filigree chrysalis wrapper to the men’s mountain-stream-dyed organic hues of cherry, mouse, and eggplant, all made richer in Austin Wang’s atmospheric light.
In the end, Han-Tang conveys the audience, seated in a multisensory time machine, into a lost society now rescued from oblivion, to endless cycles of destructive change, of personal agendas and drama, of illusory serenity and subsurface tension. On this pigmented plane, the Puppet Lady dances pale green and the Drum Lord’s heart beats grape, in aching ichor.