By Lynda Chanwai-Earle
Shenzhen Cultural Week hit Wellington when 26 of Shenzhen City’s top performing artists presented a cultural showcase of traditional Chinese performance at the Soundings Theatre at the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa on Wellington’s waterfront.
In a rare opportunity to learn from top international performers from China, primary and secondary school students attended a free performance with a question and answer session held afterwards.
Broken bones are just part of the job, as Lynda Chanwai-Earle discovers when she goes backstage afterwards with a small group of lucky secondary students as they meet the stars face-to-face - to learn more about their lives, cultures and extraordinary skills.
After the performance an even luckier select group of students studying Chinese at Wellington East Girls College went backstage to meet performers face-to-face to learn more.The showcase was sponsored by the Chinese Embassy and Wellington City Council.
Three-hundred school children chattered excitedly as they filled the foyer of Soundings Theatre. Eager Ngaio School students flocked to tell me their expectations of the upcoming performance and what they understand about Shenzhen City in Southern China – the centre for this performing troupe.
Eleven-year-old Isobel tells me she is studying Chinese – in the Q&A she wants to ask the performers what they like most about China. Nine-year-old Angeline loves acrobatics, also popular with nine year old Lila who is crazy about ballet dancing.
They’ve been selected from nine schools across Wellington region to attend this special showcase by 26 of Shenzhen City’s top performing artists that includes Mongolian dance, folk music, acrobatics and magic – all part of Discover China Shenzhen Cultural Week.
The opening dance is followed by four acrobats physically juggling large straw hats and each other with deft agility. Then delighting the students - an ensemble of traditional folk musicians from Guangdong Province perform a classic; The race-horse with the 2000-year-old Pi-pa or Chinese lute, the 17 bamboo pipes of the ancient Sheng, the 21 stringed gu-zheng or Chinese zither and the two-stringed er-hu, or upright fiddle.
Dancers dressed as Terracotta warriors from the Qin Dynasty's famous buried army (209 BCE) leap and glide across the stage to be followed by the magic show – a huge hit. The magician delighted students by turning silk handkerchiefs into marching sticks and amongst the squeals he miraculously catches a (very real looking) fish on the end of a line dangled into the audience – before making the fish disappear again.
During the Q & A session afterwards the school children eagerly asked questions; “How long did it take to train as an acrobat?” Co-MC Julian Zhu helps translate for the performers; “Not long – only 10 years!”
Backstage afterwards four students studying Chinese at Wellington East Girls College along with their Chinese teacher Karen Hu asked questions, again with the aid of MC and translator Julian Zhu.
Senior student Lucy introduces herself in Mandarin and asks if they’d been to New Zealand before. The performers tell her they haven’t, this is their first time. A Chinese New Zealander herself, senior student Mika asks what the performers like about New Zealand; “Everything! Mostly the weather and lovely blue skies.”
Fighting the giggles, Isla asks where the fish disappeared to. “You’ll have to ask the magician!” laugh the performers, but that's one magic trick that they won't divulge. Emily asks if the long, elaborate Mongolian costumes are difficult to dance in. Julian Zhu translates that in Mongolia they usually wear these kind of garments every day. The dancers trained with these costumes and are used to it.
Ming Ming (English name) the choreographer explains that they have been trained by a dance teacher from Mongolia along with other traditional dance forms at a famous Dance and Performance Academy in Beijing, but all performers are based in Shenzhen City.
Emily asks – do you start young? How hard is the training? “Yes, we start at the age of six but make it part of their whole life.” How old are they now? The acrobats reply; 21, 19, 16 and 17. “The same age as us, and we can’t do anything like that!” exclaims Mika in awe.
Have the acrobats and dancers ever had any serious injuries? One of the acrobats pulls up his legging to show his foot. This time their Chinese teacher Karen Hu translates;
That’s part of the sport – they train every day, he has a broken right foot – it can happen any time.
Simon Ding, the Production Manager for the Shenzhen Cultural Group explains more about Southern China’s newest city.
“Shenzhen is a migrant city – the youngest city in China at only 35 years of age but it’s the southernmost gate to China on the border to Hong Kong. It’s a special economic zone – with very powerful economic development. Even though it’s young the city is very keen on the development of culture. Shenzhen wants to promote young talent and expose this to international audiences.”
Where was the troupe performing before this? “We were performing in the Cook islands, at the 50th anniversary of the Cook Island’s Constitution.” Where to next? “We will tour around the European countries for Chinese New Year in 2016.”
Mika tells the performers that she’s been to Shenzhen City but mostly for the shopping and a little sightseeing. She thanks them graciously for giving her insight into their culture. Meanwhile there are hugs and thrilled exclamations all around – their Chinese Teacher Karen Hu has just discovered that she’s from the same town in Shenzhen as some of the performers.
The event has been bit like a lovely family reunion, with lots of exciting culture, performances and dazzling costumes in the mix.