Monday, March 12, 2012

A Day of Surprises

3/10/12 Saturday

We had a wonderful day today! We had planned to go to the town of Tainan to go to the performance of "Shen Yun," classical Chinese dancing. Last night we rode the train into Tainan just to have supper and saw an ad for the International Taiwanese Orchid Show taking place in a nearby town this weekend. After looking on the map, we decided to head out earlier than expected and see about the orchid show on our way to the dance performance. The orchid show was our first surprise.

The orchid show was only 30 minutes from our house way out in fields where they grow them in green houses. We followed signs from the main road down country roads, through a small village and out again onto a county road and suddenly we came upon huge fields turned into parking lots. They were surrounded by dozens of green houses. We were directed into one of these and parked the car.  

This was another event that had thousands, if not tens of thousands of people attending. We melded into the crowd even though there was no event building in sight. We walked past a building with English writing on it that read Hao Mei Orchid USDA Certified. That seemed odd, but then I remembered something I had read about the US being a part of some kind of orchid “pact” allowing them to import and export with each other. Maybe that is why there is such a building in Taiwan.

We finally came to the huge venue where the show was taking place. We first walked into a building that displayed the orchids as it had been recorded by the Portuguese explorers who happened upon Taiwan in 1542: “The explorers decided to venture through the primal forest and came across giant tree trunks that had fallen down. They found fragrant orchids growing all over the tree trunks.” There it was before us: orchids covering old tree trunks, orchids cascading over the toppled branches, orchids covering the forest floor!

It was fabulous! I could never have imaged so many orchids!!!! Each room we entered was another display somehow connected with this original history. One room had tiny yellow orchid “balls” hanging from the ceiling. This was to represent how the orchid leaves were blown on the wind, spreading new flowers all about the island.

There were many rooms to this main display. As we followed the path, we saw orchids of every color and size.

Then there were hundreds of them displayed in a series of green houses that were in an international competition. Outside, there were more displays and a park with statues adorned with orchids. In other buildings they were selling orchid "everything" as well as plants themselves. They were selling them for as little as $3.30!

This was "just a little side trip" on our way to our planned event. We did not have enough time to see it all!!!

Then we went on to the city of Tainan where we went to the Cultural Center of Performing Arts where we encountered a few more surprises. (Please read to the end to discover our last surprise of the day.)

When we went to the ticket counter, they were very impressed that foreigners wanted to see the performance. We bought two tickets, and a very nice woman who could speak English visited with us for a few minutes. Then the ticket lady broke in on our conversation and said she had better seats for us, so please exchange the original tickets with these better ones. We thought that was nice. We went to our seats and they were two of the best seats in the house! WOW! What a great surprise!

By the time the performance started, the auditorium was full except for the top balcony.
We bought a program from a very classic-looking Chinese woman in the lobby. She was wearing the traditional Chinese embroidered jacket and long skirt. Lovely!  

The printed program was bi-lingual and explained the performances. There were 22 little vignettes of classic Chinese stories, 11 in the first half and the same number in the second half. Each of them lasted only 5 minutes or so. A Chinese man in a tuxedo and a Chinese woman in a simple flowing gown were the emcees. They came on stage between each scene and gave a short synopsis of what we were about to see. The man spoke in English and the woman spoke in Mandarin. There was no speaking or singing from the performers, only dancing. This was all about story-telling through dance. And they did it marvelously!

The orchestra was a combination of a classic Western symphony and old Chinese instruments. The combination was very easy on the ear. The Western instruments softened the “screechy” sounds of Oriental music, yet the music was very much in the style of traditional China. One act was a performance of an ancient instrument that sounded like a violin but the body of the instrument was a small box that sat on the player’s lap. The strings were attached to it and connected to the pegs at the top of a long narrow neck. Thus the bow was drawn across this upright instrument sitting on her lap. Either it is made to have a beautiful delicate sound or she could play it magnificently, but it had the most wonderful sound. The percussion section of the orchestra had a huge Chinese gong. The percussionist swung a large mallet that she hung at her side. She sounded the gong without looking at it standing behind her. She’d swing the mallet at her side like a pendulum of a clock.

“Shen Yun” originated on Broadway by Chinese performers in New York. Its purpose as stated in its subtitle is “Reviving 5,000 years of civilization.” As I’ve mentioned before in other entries, the Chinese culture was completely wiped out on the Mainland by Mao’s revolution. Taiwan and the Chinese that have lived abroad since 1949 have the only preserved culture of ancient China. It is a privilege for the Chinese people to be able to perform and witness their traditional heritage around the world, except in Mainland China. The impact of this fact was very evident on the audience.  

The dancing and costumes and music were so very lovely! So graceful! I don’t know how the Chinese women do this, but they can move from place to place without looking like they are walking. They glide, float, transport themselves with no effort. Wearing their long flowing skirts, one would almost think they have some mechanism hidden underneath to cause them to move so gracefully. The colors of the costumes were beautiful combinations of pastels. The picture I have included from the poster in the lobby shows the dancers in primary colors, but that was the exception. They put colors together that we, as Westerners, would probably not combine in one outfit, but they were beautiful and soft to the eye. I wish we would have been allowed to take pictures because I cannot portray the beauty of these clothes…men’s as well as women’s.

The dance moves were also spectacular. The men were like gymnasts flipping and jumping in perfect choreographed sequences. The women were like a chorus line but more graceful and with more complex moves than any you would see done by the Rockettes in New York. Every dance used some kind of prop…swords, fans, scarves. In one dance, the woman were wearing dresses that had what they call “water sleeves.” Their sleeves extended long past their hands and were used like what we call now “ribbon dancing.” They would in one graceful movement ball their sleeves up into their hands and then throw them up in the air. They would flutter about and begin to descend to the floor and then with one sudden jolt they would whip them back into the air to make patterns with them. The men used baby blue fans as weapons, if you can picture that! They were very effective. The men would slap those fans shut all at once and the sound was like a clap. With them shut, they would extend them in an assertion of strength and power and then, snap! They would open them.

There was one feature in this program that was very modern and “Broadway”-ish. The backdrop was a screen that had scenes projected onto it. Sometimes it was just a background of mountains or sky, but sometimes it was an animated scene where one of the characters of the story was portrayed. In these scenes, the character would move from the screen onto the stage or visa versa. For example, there was a story of a Monkey King. The curtain rose on the Monkey King sitting in a tree eating a banana. When he rose to jump out of the tree, it appeared he popped right out of the tree onto the stage…actually, jumping up from behind a set of steps that stretched across the back of the stage. It was very realistic. The timing had to be precise.  

The vignettes told stories of a soldier killed in battle and his wife taking his place, of apprentice monks getting into mischief while mopping the floors of the monastery, and of snowflakes in spring to mention a few. My favorite was called “Lotus Leaves.” The women dancers were dressed in dark pink flowing pant outfits with a lotus blossom atop their heads. They carried full-circle dark green fans that looked like lily pads when opened all the way. The contrast between the pink and green was striking. The choreographed moves were perfection. The message of the story was encouraging, “Behind the leaf of every lily pad growing in the muck and mire of the pond lies a blossom ready to bloom.”

Along with the ancient stories and philosophies, there were three scenes that dealt with the suppression of free speech and religion in China today. These were very moving. As with all culture, there was some mention of their religion. The closing story was a very graphic scene using the animated screen.  It depicted Buddha saving the earth and defeating evil.

Even though I have spent quite a bit of time talking about this event, I have to include what happened when the curtain dropped, the biggest surprise of the day. As soon as the curtain came down and the lights came up, the lovely lady that visited with us at the ticket counter came to our seats and asked to please come with her to be interviewed for the TV!!! Sure enough, that's exactly what she meant for us to do. We followed her to a room where there were others, as well, waiting to be interviewed about their impressions of the show. Our lady escort was very anxious about our being on TV and shuffled us to the front of the short line. We were ushered into a room and there a TV person with a microphone interviewed us in front of a camera! How funny is that! It was a day of wonderful surprises!

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