An epic production boasting an original concept, inventive designs and excellent dancing, Tide of Era portrays China’s social, economic and technological development from the 1980s to the present day.
While the dance drama may at times seem to treat its overall theme in a simplistic manner, the individual stories that underpin it resonate and have depth.
It is presented by the China National Opera and Dance Drama Theatre, the largest national body of its kind in China, founded in 1964 and directly affiliated with the central government.
As you would expect from a state company, the work, which premiered in 2021, portrays the past 40 years in a consistently positive light – always onwards and upwards – with the grand, large-scale group sequences interspersed with the story of an individual family.
This family saga, by far the strongest aspect of the piece artistically, portrays both the ups and downs of living through a time of such rapid change and offers some intelligent insights and genuinely moving scenes.
The male and female protagonists arrive separately in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou at the beginning of the 1980s, young and penniless, with dreams of a better life. In this city bustling with energy and new industry, they meet and fall in love. Their love duet, full of spectacular lifts, including the woman standing upright on her partner’s chest, is the choreographic high point of the show.
At first things go well. The male sets up a thriving technology business and the couple and their young son have a happy home life.
However, as the years go by, the father becomes so preoccupied with business that he neglects his family, alienating his son and not realising that his wife’s health is failing. In the end everything comes crashing down – his business collapses, his wife dies and his son turns his back on him and goes overseas to study, leaving his own girlfriend behind.
The act ends with a powerful image of the father running desperately on the spot, all alone, trying to survive.
The second half of the show opens with the son and his girlfriend – now a volunteer teacher in a distant mountain region – keeping in touch via the internet. When a massive earthquake strikes and he cannot contact her, he flies home and tries to find her in the stricken area.
He encounters his father, who is using his technology to locate and save survivors – including the girlfriend and her pupils – yet in spite of seeing his father’s noble character, the son still refuses to have anything to do with him and goes back to his studies abroad.
Eventually, the son and other overseas graduates return to China to help drive the country’s success with their new skills. The son reconciles at last with his father and joins him in developing cutting-edge technology for the nation, while reuniting with his girlfriend, bringing the family’s journey full circle to a happy ending.
The audience at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre – which gave the piece a rapturous reception – was noticeably different from the venue’s usual dance performances and included a high number of Mandarin speakers, perhaps reflecting a difference in taste between mainland-born audiences and local dance aficionados.
Despite a degree of naivety in plot and presentation, Tide of Era nonetheless has the virtue of raising real human issues that everyone can relate to.
If the choreography by Tong Ruirui is not notable for originality, it tells the story clearly and well. The group sequences representing the “tides” sweeping China forward are quite repetitive, but the energy and commitment of the dancing convey the sense of momentum effectively, and Tong deploys her large cast with skill and assurance throughout.
The production is well served by its designers. Zhong Jiani’s costumes and Hu Tianji’s multimedia projections on Wang Lifeng’s towering set cleverly convey the changes of the era: in the 1980s, we see the skeletons of new high-rise buildings, while in the ’90s, those buildings have become the landscape.
In a magnificent performance, Pan Yongchao brings brilliant technique, profound emotion and Herculean stamina to the central role of the father.
All the dancing is of a high standard and the other individual roles are also beautifully performed.
Bizarrely, unlike other mainland Chinese companies who have appeared in Hong Kong, no casting was provided, just a list of dancers’ names – and Pan is the only one I have been able to identify.
A shame, as such fine artists deserve to be credited for their work.
“Tide of Era”, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre. Reviewed Sep 23