The Chinese dance-drama Dragon Boat Racing is music and dance at its finest. While words are absent, dramatic music and emotive dance tell a story that transcends language. I joined theatergoers on Friday night to experience this whirlwind performance at the Kennedy Center, the first stop on its 2018 U.S. run.
Performed by the Guangdong Song & Dance Ensemble, Dragon Boat Racing is the story of how one of the most famous pieces of Cantonese music was composed. Set in 1930s China, Nian and Ling are two young musicians who fall in love; but family obligation tears them apart when Nian’s father’s dying wish is for his son is to marry Ying and finish “Dragon Boat Racing,” the composition passed down to him.
Nian travels to the countryside with his new wife and cousin Yan to finish the piece, but he and Ling are destined to meet again. Little do they all know, tragedy soon strikes when the Japanese occupation of China begins.
The story is written by Tang Dong, with music by Du Ming. Zhou Liya and Han Zhen choreographed and directed the production together. Dragon Boat Racing combines Cantonese music and history with state-of-the-art visuals that kept the audience engaged for the full 120 minutes.
While the entire performance was mesmerizing – in dance, music, costume and set – certain moments stood out from the rest. What looked like an intricately designed Chinese wall divider for the opening curtain turned into moving walls that created unique designs for each act.
In one scene, performers used dance to represent townspeople being shot, which shocked me despite a lack of gun props or gore. In another scene, a visual representation was used to show Nian composing the piece, and the dramatic pounding on tanggu drums transported me to the waterways of a dragon boat race.
But smaller moments proved just as alluring, like a beautiful umbrella dance and the comedic chaos that any wedding in any place or time is bound to have.
While the show itself is fiction, it represents the generations that went into creating the real-life piece that the dance-drama is named after, as well as the actual historic event of the Japanese occupation of China. Filled with comedy, romance, passion and sorrow, Dragon Boat Racing shares important aspects of Chinese culture through pounding drums and graceful dance that captivated me from start to finish.
Dragon Boat Racing runs through February 4 at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater.
The Kennedy Center: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org