Dongpo: Life in Poems

Dongpo: Life in Poems
Reviewer's Rating

Every detail of Dongpo: Life in Poems is exquisite. Created by Shen Wei, the remarkably talented choreographer, director, painter and dancer, the production is a work of art. The experience for the audience is akin to a spiritual journey, a moving and transformative conversation of connectivity and joy in the simple pleasures of life.

Structured in six acts, each centred around fragments of Dongpo’s poetry, the production travels through the poet’s life, while also transcending time and place. We start in 1037, the year of Su Dongpo’s birth, journeying through the Song dynasty, but by the end of the performance, the poetry has reached the modern world, his words just as meaningful for us today as a millennium ago.

The first fragment, projected onto a vast and beautiful canvas – ‘Like autumn’s geese, people come and go with traces to find, yet past moments, like spring’s dream, leave no mark behind’ – leads us into a mesmerising opening, a dancer appearing to be suspended in the sky as he moves. This shifts into a spectacular ensemble, dancers in red moving over boxes painted with calligraphy. Each act of the performance is a sensory indulgence, a remarkable rotation of beautiful costumes, the colours merging with the lighting, sets, calligraphy, and seal engravings. When the dancers glide on to the stage, long, dramatic skirts wrapped around their legs and feet, every detail of the choreography blends with the brush of the fabric and the movement of the colours beneath the lights.

‘Life and death have separated us for ten years.’ These words mark the opening of a poignant and heart breaking moment, two lovers searching for one another, a chorus of dancers in ghostly blue positioned on dark steps that rise up towards the back of the stage. Every movement, each turn of the head, angle of the arm, breath and exhalation, is the perfect and powerful embodiment of longing.

Moonlight, engraved images of the moon, calligraphy painted across moonlit scenes, hover over many of the acts. These words to the moon linger:

‘People grieve o’er separation but rejoice in reunion;

While you’re waning and waxing alternately, which

has been a matter of fact since antiquity.

Many all of us far apart be blessed with longevity, so

that we can always share the moon’s beauty.’

The music and the choreography pay homage to a rich Chinese cultural heritage and its place among contemporary visual arts. The spirit of the production is one of connectivity and transcendence, and this is enhanced through the conversations between Guqin music, Chinese opera, Tai Chi, ballet, and modern dance.

Dongpo: Life in Poems is a performance one could watch over and over again, finding new meanings every time. It is a performance that draws on the sorrows and joys of human relationships, love, loss, homesickness, dreaming, contemplation, and, most importantly, a search for unity through the shared experience of our humanity. The last act is centred around these words: ‘I don’t mind leading a life in a raincoat.’ Dancers move in unison, their breath rising and falling in blue, yellow and white. This final moment is one of sadness and joy, loss and acceptance – Dongpo’s remarkable poetry brought to life on stage.


Produced and Performed by China Oriental Performing Arts Group & Meishan Song and Dance Theatre

Co-presented by American Dance Festival

Director, Choreographer, Visual Playwright, Set/Costume/Modelling Design: Shen Wei

Composer/Music Director: Chen Qigang

Playwright: Guo Changhong

Lighting Design: Xiao Lihe

Calligraphy and Seal Engraving: Yang Tao

Cast includes: Su Peng, Liu Jie, Zeng Huanxing, Sheng Haozhe

David H. Koch Theatre

Run time: 90 minutes, no intermission

Run until March 17th