REVIEW: Senses featuring Tang Jia Li – Dennis Law's new musical at the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts

I had never heard Puccini performed in Mandarin Chinese before. We saw
the opening show for SENSES at the Centre in Vancouver for Performing
Arts tonight. Very different – and yet strangely a fusion of Eastern
and Western culture but pushing the boundaries of what we have
generally accepted as traditional multiculturalism. Dr. Dennis Law is
again pushing the expectations of the audience's comfort zone, as he
has previously done with Heaven and Earth and Terracotta Warriors.

Cultural expectations and perceptions of Chinese art and Chinese women
clash and collide with Western sensibility and Asian sensibility.
Stereotypes are broken and reinforced. The familiar is made strange and
the strange is made familiar. Remarkable that all can be done within a
multi-arts presentation with high production values .
It was a combination of Chinese classical dance, Chinese folk dance,
Western and Chinese music. The costumes are almost always 
beautiful but sometimes exotically tacky. Many are influenced and
inspired by Chinese historical fashion, while others seem very
post-modern and fastasy-oriented.

The Western music is drawn from well-known  classical music by Puccini,
Massenet and others, and sung in Mandarin Chinese.  Of course when the
originals are sung in Italian, French or German, I never understood
them anyways.  But the singers conveyed the emotional content of the
songs, and the themes of love found and love lost, and so translated
the meaning through their presence and projection.

The show was divided into 4 separate parts with a single
intermission in the middle. Part One was inspired by the Tang Dynasty –
one of the cultural high points of Chinese history, followed by Part
Two which was inspired by the Modern Period. Part Three followed the
intermission and was inspired by the Ching Dynasty, which was the last
dynasty before it was overthrown by the Republican revolution in the
early 1900's. This was followed by Part Four, inspired by the future.

Throughout each “period”, the music featured a combination of Western
music with Chinese lyrics, chinese folk songs, and original Chinese
music, Chinese classical dance or contemporary choreography. Sometimes
the costumes and dancing seemed tackily inappropriate like a Roger
Vadim movie, sometimes they were beautifully breathtaking, as was the
dancing. Sometimes the music seemed overly sacharine like Muzak or
Andrew Lloyd Webber, but sometimes it was lyrically beautiful.

Senses is meant to be an impressionistic expression of Chinese
Womanhood, exploring different aspects but heavily on the sensual and
beautiful. There are an abundance of revealing costumes that show off
the female form. Some flow like beautiful silken clouds, while the
dancers' costumes for the Modern Age are garish, an imitation of
cut-out cowboy riding chaps in chiffon, revealing red panties. This
combined with the provative poses was very distracting, and while it
might seem to be more at home in a burlesque show, it brought to my
mind a comparison of the costumes and choreography of the recent Ballet
BC's production of Rite of Spring, which was itself extremely sexual.
It is my belief that costumes are used to accentuate and enhance the
performance, however this production is also using costume designs to
make statements.

It is a challenge to see beyond the cultural veils of expectations and
expression. Is what we are seeing truly based on Chinese song and
dance? Is this what is going on in contemporary China, Hong Kong or
Taiwan? Or is it pushed to the next level, mixed and fused with Western
conceptions and production values?

In Vancouver, we haven't really seen the top Chinese ballet dancers
yet, as China is probably wary of defections. When Max Wyman came to see Terracotta Warriors he told me that the
Russian Ballet Masters greatly influenced the Chinese schools in the
late 1800's and early 1900's. While at the same time the Chinese used
their grand history of acrobatics and traditional dance to also
influence their forms of classical ballet. What we saw in SENSES was a
combination as dancer Tang Jia Li, incorporates both acrobatic form
with Chinese classical dance into something very stunning and

The revealing costumes question whether Women's Liberation and issues
of male objectification of females has entered the Chinese sensibility,
or is it only now that the female body and its art is being liberated
from the bondage or male oppression dictated by bound feet, restrictive
clothing and patriarchy?

Altogether, SENSES is an very enjoyable show. It is an ambitious show that
at times is overwhelming by trying to include a bit too much of
everything. The dancers parading as chorus girls contrasted greatly
with the high quality of the pas de deux. The sacharine sweet orchestration
contrasted with the vituosity of the solo singing or instrumental solos.

In its larger-than-life moments, featured dancer Tang Jia Li flies
through the air in a harness, lifted by almost invisible wires. She
strikes poses that make it seem effortless with incredible muscular

In the final scene, the onstage musicians play in the
background, while a pas de deux is performed, while above them, lifted
into the air – standing on platforms, two singers perform a duet. What
does it have to do with each other? Nothing, except it all adds up to
visual spectacle. It is a feast for the visual senses. And that is what
the show aspires to.
more reflections later….


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