The Autumn Fest combines modern dance and historic facts with mythological elements.
Tucson just may be the world’s only desert city to have giant giraffes, martial artists and modern dancers all show up en force for a community party about a sea journey. This unusual fête happens Friday, Sept. 5 and Saturday, Sept. 6, when the Tucson Chinese Cultural Center (TCCC) and the Barbea Williams Performing Company meld ancient inspiration into a seamless creative pulse for the TCCC’s Autumn Moon Festival, called Autumn Fest.
This year’s festival (celebrated throughout most of East Asia and a traditionally big, annual event at the TCCC’s 1288 W. River Rd. complex) intends to test the conventional bounds of Tucson performance by blending storytelling with explosive ballet choreography and martial arts.
“In a theatrical, contemporary way we’ll craft an original dance-drama that incorporates both African and Chinese traditions,” says Robin Blackwood of the TCCC’s History Committee.
History Leaves A Trace
Set in a 15th century milieu, this Autumn Fest performance retraces the actual recorded journeys of Ming Dynasty Sea Captain Zheng He to Africa and beyond. Independent educator and historian Gloria Smith researched and produced the script.
As Blackwood explains, the voyages occurred 70 years before the time of the sea-faring Genoese explorer Christopher Columbus. The Chinese Emperor, known now as the Yong Le Emperor, commissioned seven voyages, sending mariners far from home for years at a time. It is a particularly apt story for the Autumn Moon Festival, says Blackwell, which is when Chinese far from home all over the world look up at the moon and imagine their families far away watching the same moon.
In three acts, the Sea Captain begins a voyage from China, traverses southern Asia to African cities of what is now modern-day Somalia and Kenya, and in a dream sequence finale, a great storm takes the mariners all the way to the Sonoran Desert. Only the dream sequence is not based on recorded fact.
“The true history of Zheng He and his voyages of diplomacy as far as Africa strike a chord with both Chinese and African-American groups,” says Blackwell. “For Chinese, it is a re-affirmation of a history suppressed until recently in China. For African-Americans it is a recognition of important African history long-ignored.”
One gift brought back to the Chinese Emperor from the African voyages was a giraffe. According to Blackwood, Chinese paintings created at the time of the voyages illustrate how the giraffe made quite a stir in China, where initially the giraffe was believed to be a qilin – a benevolent horned creature in Chinese mythology. So, to dramatize the creature in the Autumn Fest performance, a giant giraffe puppet has been constructed. This summer, sculptor artist Mykl Wells built the 14-foot tall puppet, covered in muslin, intricately detailing it with cabling and over 2,500 feet of steel wire to allow movements in the jaw and eyelids and throughout the puppet. Community participants helped put the skin on the puppet at TCCC-held workshops over the summer.
“It’s a collaboration of history, education, performance and visual arts,” says Blackwood, who indicated that the TCCC received a People, Land, Art, Culture, Engagement (PLACE) grant from Tucson Pima Arts Council (TPAC) for this project. PLACE grants, funded entirely by private foundations, have been awarded on an annual basis for the last several years, to around a dozen artistic projects per year .
The Barbea Williams Performing Company – Tuscon’s African-centered performance troupe founded in 1975 – is part of the collaboration, with Williams choreographing both Chinese and African-American dancers in an advanced dance interpretation for the Autumn Fest.
After another successful PLACE collaboration in 2013 with the Barbea Williams Performing Company, TCCC asked Williams if she would like to collaborate again to explore a common narrative discovered during the 2013 PLACE project, when a “rolling history” bus visited historic Chinese groceries in various neighborhoods. With her dance troupe headquarters at the Dunbar Cultural Center, Williams (and her artistic direction in both the performing company and in her UA dance teaching assignment) is well known for advocacy of arts as essential to well-being.
Master Junming Zhao, a visiting scholar from the Songshan Shaolin Vocational Institute in China to the UA’s Confucius Institute, will perform as the Sea Captain in the Autumn Fest. Winner of numerous international martial arts and Tai Chi competitions, Master Zhao has over 18 years of experience in Wushu practice, including five years of strict training in the Songshan Shaolin Temple, the mecca of Chinese Wushu. He will lead the Tucson Sino Martial Arts group participating in the performance, with TCCC’s Lion Dancers, under the direction of Kevin and Ben Lau, debuting the Northern Lion Dance in Tucson for the Autumn performance. The paired artistry of Williams and Master Zhao – combining dance fluidity with the precision poise of the martial arts and Lion Dance movements – all promises to manifest the story in unexpected ways.
“There will be dialog, dance, drums, large-scale puppets, colorful scenery, and a celebration of cartography that puts another historical spin on the orchestrated work,” says Blackwood, who sees the Autumn Fest as a way to make multicultural collaboration visible, both within Chinese community and city-wide. The audience will be invited to make traditional Autumn Moon lanterns before the performance and then join the final procession.
Performances are at Tucson Chinese Cultural Center, 1288 W. River Rd. Admission is $10 adults, $5 all students (age 6 and above). Attendees also may purchase food voucher tickets for various items available at the multicultural feast. Festivities begin at 6 p.m. For reservations, call (520) 292-6900, and learn more at TucsonChinese.org.