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East meets West: China Focus at the Edinburgh Festivals

East meets West: China Focus at the Edinburgh Festivals

Tang and Four Dreams / credit: Noah Liu

The voices and stories of China took centre-stage through this year's China Focus programme, investigating the country's historic and current creative history

The annual China Focus programme continues to gain strength and build lasting links. This was its third year at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe with productions including The Blue Bird, The King of Ghosts: Zhong Kui, Qi and Tang and Four Dreams. It was also China Focus' debut year at the Edinburgh International Festival with performances from Shanghai Symphony Orchestra playing Dvořák and Shostakovich and a brand new version of ballet and orchestral work, Rite of Spring.

Created as a celebration of the founding of the People's Republic of China, the programme aims to promote original Chinese works in the UK as a nod to the positive cultural relationship between the two countries. To mark the achievements of the UK-China arts industries, officials from the Chinese Embassy, Shanghai Municipal Government, Scottish Government, Edinburgh Council, British Council, EIF, and the Fringe, alongside members of the press and artists, came together on Thursday 22 August for an East to West commemoration.

At the ceremony, one of the pieces highlighted was Tang and Four Dreams, which played from 21–23 August at Assembly George Square as part of the Fringe. The musical theatre piece is a 'play within a play' that explores a contemporary understanding of the life of Tang Xianzu, China's answer to Shakespeare, and showcases Chinese musical instruments, culture and literature.

'This musical is inspired by Tang's Four Dreams,' says scriptwriter Lu Jiayun. 'When I wrote this story, I read all of Tang's Four Dreams and I think this story still has life, with audiences being moved by each dream. The stories of Tang Xianzu are never happy but it is important to let people know who he is.'

'Both Tang and Shakespeare wrote tragedies,' composer Xu Jianqiang adds. 'The difference between them is Shakespeare wrote tragedies directly. In Tang's time, if he had written his anger directly, he would have been killed. He had to express his emotions through his writing and drama.'

East meets West: China Focus at the Edinburgh Festivals

Rite of Spring / credit: Ryan Buchanan

Its double structure takes audiences back to the Ming Dynasty where four parts of Tang's life accompany his Four Dreams in Linchuan. In the modern part, a young woman called Xin'an searches for the meaning of Tang's words from his play The Peony Pavilion: 'where does love arise? It wells up from the deep'. At its heart, the piece aims to teach audiences about Tang's works and traverse his commitment to ideals and love.

'China is a cultural giant and [it's culture] is widely celebrated,' Jianqiang says. 'We dreamed of bringing this show to the United Kingdom to introduce Tang Xianzu to a western audience. As a composer I added a lot of traditional Chinese instruments, and traditional Chinese opera; like Peking Opera and Kunqa Opera. I wanted to mix western and Chinese music together.'

Earlier this year the production toured to some of the world's most prestigious venues including the Sydney Opera House and the Melbourne Recital Centre.

Other productions which garnered success at the summer festivals were The Blue Bird, a blend of east and west in a Broadway-style, based on Maurice Maeterlinck's classic story and performed by Helen O'Grady Drama Academy. The King of Ghosts: Zhong Kui took inspiration from the traditional Chinese myth of the same name and combined Chinese classical opera, multimedia and modern music to create a vivid piece of children's theatre. Finally, Qi is a movement piece inspired by the shapes and meanings of pictographic characters, offering a multi-sensory experience.

Making its debut at the EIF, China Focus brought Shanghai Symphony Orchestra: Dvořák and Shostakovich and the Rite of Spring to Edinburgh's Usher Hall and Festival Theatre respectively. China's premier classical ensemble performed under the musical direction of Long Yu and the orchestra were joined by US cellist Alisa Weilerstein for a stirring performance of Dvořák's Cello Concerto and Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony. With Rite of Spring, Yang Liping's major new version of the classic ballet used two specially created new scores inspired by traditional music from Tibet, as well as the original by Igor Stravinsky, to critical acclaim.

Fresh from its success in Edinburgh, China Focus continues to be a force for good in encouraging new ideas in the UK-China art industries and fostering important links between the arts and culture sectors and governments.

Tang and Four Dreams

Shanghai Conservatory of Music This musical theatre applies a double-structured storyline to interpret contemporary understandings of Tang Xianzu, known as Shakespeare of the East. In the Ming Dynasty part, several important episodes in Tang's life are selected to accompany his composition of the renowned Four Dreams…

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