Performances even more extraordinary than Gelabert's dominated Second Visit to the Empress, the modern dance choreographer Shen Wei's attempt to renovate an early 18th-century work that apparently predates the regularizing of Beijing opera. The climax of a trilogy, the piece tells a Racinian story of political maneuvering with tragic personal consequences. Naming her ambitious father as regent rather than trust her late husband's advisers, a newly widowed empress finds herself a virtual prisoner under his tyrannic rule. In ceremonial visits, the now-powerless advisers convince her to help them overthrow and execute her father and restore legitimate rulea deeply troubling "happy" ending, in a culture to which filial piety is central.
Rich, simple, and gorgeously tuneful, the opera's immensely demanding score makes glorious listening, and Shen Wei recruited superb singers and musicians for it. The only difficulty with the event came from his need to "modernize" it, which for him meant having his dance troupe, in monochrome unitards, performing what looked like standard bits of contemporary movement while the four Beijing opera performers sang away, wearing traditional costumes and employing traditional gestures. The two events simply lay there side by side, barely interacting and never fusing. Given its superior quality as material and as performance, the opera simply blew the modern dance into the background. This was sad because Shen Wei obviously has a deep passion for the ancient form, in which he trained for 10 years, as well as a deep drive to reconcile it with his contemporary consciousness. His unhappy result was at least a bold statement of the problem facing every artist today. We can't live in an isolationist past, while the global present, crowding in on us electronically, trivializing our individuality, divides us from one another as much as it unites us in its nondescript, diffuse blankness.