A Night at the Theater among the Dunhuang Sand Dunes

Dunhuang hotel on the dunes

Looking at my ticket wouldn’t communicate the scope.  What I can read: “Dunhuang Festival: the largest desert-subject live performance in the world.  Flying hand in hand, carry me back to Dunhuang.”  There is no hint of what was to come.

How do I describe “shows” in China?  If you have ever been to one you know that there is no such thing as chill when it comes to stage craft.  As per usual when I am at one of these shows I spent the evening asking myself, “What the actual hell is going on?”   There were supposed to be English subtitles but after the first minute or so of the show there were none.  I am not sure if having them would have helped.

Photo: MaryJo Rawleigh- she has the good camera and the patience to get the shot!

Photo: MaryJo Rawleigh- she has the good camera and the patience to get the shot!

Theater in China

Going to theatrical events in China is a bit different than what you might be used to.  First you have to wrestle your way through the crowd.  This show was sold out so the users were ruthless in getting people to their assigned seats.  Unfortunately, for me that mean an incredible tall Chinese man was sitting in front of me.  The show was outside and we had been given plastic rain ponchos when we presented out tickets despite the fact that there was no sign at all of rain.  Even stranger was the fact that about half the audience put theirs on, hoods up.  It wasn’t super warm so all I can think of is they were trying to get warm. 

PHOTO: MARYJO RAWLEIGH-

PHOTO: MARYJO RAWLEIGH-

What is going on?

What I pieced together:  I think that this was the story of how the singing dunes started singing.  There is a beautiful princess who is being married off to some guy but really wants the lowly trader who saved her in the desert.  Interspersed with all kinds of insanity. One section was, I swear, a romanization of a woman washing a man’s feet. 50 lavishly costumed women were sitting at the feet of 50 costumed men washing their feet in perfect stylized unison.  Then there were the men who were throwing fireworks.  They had there shovels and then they sort of whipped them at the ground and boom, fireworks.  But from the ground.  It was insane.  And now, I imagine safe. There were hundreds upon hundreds of people involved.  There were live camels, horses, a lantern show, several battles, and constantly thwarted true love.

Turn it up to eleven!

PHOTO: MARYJO RAWLEIGH-

PHOTO: MARYJO RAWLEIGH-

But wait! There’s more!  The stands frickin’ rotated. Not little stands.  Huge stands hold probably a thousand people rotated every ten minutes or so to point us at another section of the show.  We ended up turned completely around and inside a building where there were 50 or so aerial silk artists lowered from the ceiling to go their thing.

All the while there was singing happening in Chinese (I assume advancing the story but I can’t be sure) and occasionally bad overdubbed lines of dialogue.  The finally had a lazer show and the optical illusion of sand storms carrying our intrepid couple up to heaven (I presume.)

It was spectacular and I think I want to go again…