Dancers perform Pearl at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City in late August (XINHUA)
A small girl named Pearl runs and skips along the banks of the Yangtze River, playing with peasant fishermen, mimicking the graceful movements of village girls, plaiting her hair into long braids and taking lessons in calligraphy and Confucianism from her Chinese tutor Mr. Kong. She is lonely. Her brothers and sisters have died from illness and disease, and her parents, American missionaries in southeast China's Zhenjiang, are busy with their work.
As her life unfolds, the little girl sees firsthand the ravages of war and the evil of racial hatred and finds herself pulled between her homeland of America and her adopted country China. Pearl channels her longing and emotions into a creative energy, writing about her unique childhood in novels that win her fame and honor.
The life story of Pearl S. Buck, now considered one of America's greatest novelists and humanitarians, has been interpreted into a dance play called Pearl--which made its global debut at Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater on August 27 with great success, earning a standing ovation from jaded New Yorkers used to seeing the very best in world dance. It is the first international project of China's Legend River Entertainment and is led by renowned choreographer and director Daniel Ezralow, who, among other works, is known for choreographing the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, and for his work in the Broadway production Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.
Ezralow said his aim in developing the dance play was "communication."
"Initially, [the ballet] is about Pearl S. Buck and her life, but her life was a communication between East and West at a time when East and West was somewhat divided. Her life is a representation and, also, an example for all of us," Ezralow told Beijing Review. "We can embrace cross-culturalism and embrace this world as one world without boundaries."
Ezralow said he was inspired by the life of this extraordinary woman and presents her story in five symbolic stages--spring, river, flower, moon and night. Those segments are based on a poem by Zhang Ruoxu, a Tang Dynasty (618-907) poet, about the passing human existence. The poem, like Pearl's childhood, is centered around the moonlit Yangtze River and the sorrow of leaving loved ones behind.
"If you take a poem like Spring, River, Flower, Moon, Night, it is effectively about life and about how we live and die and how things continue. It's just like Pearl," Ezralow said.
Each character in the name of the poem corresponds to a stage in Pearl's life, he said. "Spring" is Pearl's youth, "river" is movement, "flower" is her creativity, "night" is her homesickness for China and "moon" is her enduring legacy.
Pearl's influence is also felt in the deliberate casting of the multinational crew of dancers and production staff. The five dancers who play Pearl are all of different ethnicities and nationalities, blending East and West in a harmonious portrait of the writer's life.
"Every single performer is multicultural," Ezralow said. "When I chose them I was very conscious of the fact that Pearl grew up in China, she came to America and she fought for the cause of multiculturalism across this world--which we need to do as well. So, I felt the cast had to be multicultural."
Also starring in the show is a six-foot-wide, 150-foot-long river, with actual water, to symbolize the Yangtze and the division between East and West that Pearl constantly tried to bridge. At one point in the show, after Pearl watches her two worlds go to war in the Boxer Rebellion, two planks with the characters for "bridge" and "dream" are laid across the dividing stream. She submerges herself in the waters--the life stream of her adopted country--and emerges as her own woman confident in her convictions.
"When you walk into the David H. Koch Theater and see a river, it changes your perspective," Ezralow said. "I'm trying to do a show that shifts your perspective. I don't want you to think 'dance show.' I want you to see a river and wonder why, on a dance stage. It represents the Yangtze. It represents the Pacific Ocean. It represents the blood in our veins. It's everything. It's life."
In addition to being multicultural, the performance is also multimedia. As Pearl explores her passion for writing, projections of words fly above her head onto a page. Digital projections of the five dancers who play Pearl morph and provide transitions between each stage of her life. Above the stage are ancient characters projected with the five stages of the show.
"I went to a Buddhist temple near Zhenjiang and I saw 2,000-year-old calligraphy that was etched in stone. It was amazing, and so modern. That's what I was inspired by," Ezralow said.
Ezralow said he wanted American audiences to be inspired by his work on Pearl and to become more interested in the life of this amazing writer. By all measures, the director has succeeded.
"I hate to admit it, but I have never read The Good Earth or anything by Pearl S. Buck," said audience member Stephanie Turner, who became interested in the show based on Ezralow's past work. "But now, I really want to read her novels. She seems like such an amazing woman and I'm so inspired."
By intermission, Turner said her favorite part of the show was the alienation Pearl felt when returning to America for college. The strange hopping motions and tinny music of Western culture in the 1920s seemed foreign and dissonant after the gliding dances of Pearl's childhood--much as it must have been to Pearl herself.
Pearl had only four performances at Lincoln Center, but is expected to continue on to tour the United States, Europe and China. A documentary film about the production is slated to appear in China. After its enthusiastic reception from New York audiences, the show seems set for a triumphant run and the life of Pearl S. Buck may touch a new generation of both Chinese and Americans looking for a way to build understanding across cultures.
The Life of Pearl S. Buck
Pearl S. Buck (1892-1973) spent most of her early life in Zhenjiang, China, as the daughter of American missionaries. Growing up on the banks of the Yangtze River, she learned Chinese and grew close to her local playmates. By the time she was sent to attend college back in the United States, she was alienated from her American classmates by her unusual upbringing.
Even as she grew used to Western life, she remembered and loved her Chinese childhood. She returned to China and married agricultural economist missionary John Lossing Buck. The match was not a happy one, and they divorced as Pearl moved back to the United States and began to write novels drawn from her childhood life in China. She then fell in love and married Richard Walsh, her publisher and greatest supporter.
Pearl's novel The Good Earth earned her both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature. It was the bestselling fiction book in the United States in 1931 and 1932. Yet she never returned to China, separated by war and politics. When U.S. President Richard Nixon visited China in 1972, Pearl was "heartbroken" when she was prevented from joining the delegation. She died a year later, and her grave marker is inscribed with Chinese characters of her name.
The author is a contributing writer to Beijing Review, living in New York City