No hordes of soldier acrobats somersault through Shen Wei’s presentation of Second Visit to the Emperor. This 18th-century Chinese opera, the last part of a trilogy, focuses on virtuosic singing. The widowed Empress Li, having unwisely trusted her father, Li Liang, to protect her infant son, is immured in the palace, and he has taken power. Two loyal former advisers, Duke Xu Yanzhao and General Yang Bo, come to save the heir and overthrow the usurper. We see neither the battle nor the execution of Li Liang. At the work’s climax, the Empress kneels to the two gallant men and admits her mistake.
Shen’s Lincoln Center production stars four remarkable singers from the Beijing Opera: Zhang Jing (Empress Li), He Wei (General Yang), Deng Mu Wei (Duke Xu), and Song Yang (Miss Xu). Seventeen musicians, playing assorted stringed, wind, and percussion instruments, reflect the rhythms and emotions of the scenes. Shen designed the set, drawing on Chinese water colors, and his costumes refer to tradition without being conventional. Instead of having flags sticking up from the back of his costume, the General sports a pale-green stand-up collar, and the Duke, a “painted-face” character, wears a shaggy scarlet robe that matches his red visage.
The singers perform roles they know well, eliciting applause from the cognoscenti for the subtle intonations they apply to drawn-out tones and delicate vocal tremolos and those beautiful dying falls at the ends of notes. Beyond their characteristic strides and emblematic gestures, they move only minimally. Shen, trained in Chinese opera but better known in the field of modern dance, has countered the stillness by introducing a chorus of 12 gray-clad dancers. When some of them relate to the principal characters, it’s as visualizations of musical qualities. There’s some stunning dancing, especially by Shen, Hou Ying, and Dai Jian, and an effective moment in which the ensemble forms a sculptural mass, while Brooke M. Broussard, on a platform, seems to express the Empress’s captivity through physical repression. The two styles never fully mesh though. Shen’s signature walk—tiny gliding steps with the arms held close to the body—resonates with Asian theater conventions, and the performers could be shadow courtiers or wind rushing through the corridors. But their sinuous convolutions are thoroughly contemporary.
The Lincoln Center Festival has a history of presenting unusual hybrids or new takes on tradition. But it also lets us glimpse styles undiluted by contemporary tweaking. Of course, Mongolian singers and dancers usually perform in yurts, not spread out in a line against a backdrop of red felt (by Blanche de la Taste and Aline Desherbais) facing an audience of strangers, as this imported ensemble does in its concert (one of two programs). But the skillful performers offer their artistry as if we were their guests—with relaxed dignity and an unaffected pleasure in one another’s work.
The eight men and one woman represent five ethnic groups. Some were born into families of musicians and have studied and teach the traditional forms; others make their living as livestock farmers. Their uncannily beautiful music and pantomimic dances are rooted in the life of the steppes—the horses they ride, their lowing herds, the wind blowing through the high grasslands, the nights enriched by recitations of The Secret History of the Mongols, an epic poem about Genghis Khan. When Naranbat fingers his vertical flute, you can hear that shrill wind softening into tremulous breeze. When the extraordinary female performer, Narantuya, embarks on a “long song,” she seems to be calling out from a mountaintop, reiterating and embellishing a stanza before moving on to the next. Passing from an intricate melisma to a much higher note, as if suddenly leaping to a crag, she can hold a tone on a single breath practically forever.
One of the outstanding forms of Mongolian singing is diphonic. Plucking his two-stringed lute and barely moving his mouth, Lkhagva produces a drone from deep in his throat, while maintaining a high, delicate vocal melody above it. Imagine a breeze swirling above unyielding ground or water negotiating rocks. Odsuren and Zagd-Otchir also play lutes and perform overtone singing, but they join their voices as well—Odsuren’s gravelly bass anchoring the younger man’s freer melody. Burenbayar uses his considerable vocal and expressive resources to recite and chant an excerpt from the epic.
The two dancers, accompanied by lutist Buuveibaatar, rarely move from one spot, but—legs apart, knees bent—they maintain a rhythmic bounce, as if astride a horse. Their shoulders bounce at times, too, and they flick their hands into the air around them, turning their heads to follow the gestures. Miming hurling a lasso, shooting an arrow, welcoming guests, playing knuckle-bones, they’re wonderfully animated. Usually the brief dances are solos, but in one, 53-year-old Zinamyetr jumps up to straddle 22-year-old Chuluunbaatar, and together they portray a forking tree. I could sit marveling for another 90 minutes.
Why have all these people congregated at night in Lincoln Center Plaza gazing up at the façade of the State Theater? Standing, sitting on the fountain’s rim, unfolding beach chairs, they’re watching Slow Dancing, David Michalek’s 43 videos of dancers succeeding one another on three huge filmy screens. We see five seconds of dancing taped with a special camera at 1,000 frames per second and drawn out to 10 minutes. Christopher “Lil C” Toler floats up into a jump. Wind makes Holley Farmer’s gradually extending leg appear to ripple. Koma sinks down, every prolonged minute a sculpted revelation. These barely moving performers subtly champion the festival’s commitment to diversity, and the effect is mesmerizing.