It is another busy day. Peals of handclaps and the rustling of bodies twisting on the ground float out from a dance studio in Lanzhou, capital of northwest China’s Gansu Province. Then a lady’s voice rings out.
“Get ready. Mind your manners, and begin. First, high kick… Now try again,” said Jin Liang, director of a research centre for Dunhuang mural dance at the Lanzhou University of Arts and Science.
Dunhuang mural dance drew inspiration from the iconic figure of the flying Apsara found on the murals of the Mogao Grottoes a 1,650-year-old UNESCO World Heritage site home to more than 2,000 coloured sculptures and 45,000 square meters of murals in Dunhuang.
The dance genre is especially acclaimed for its graceful gestures, which require brief bursts of strength and good balance
All the attention in the studio is on Jin, who gives precise instructions for the gestures of the hands, waist, and even the rhythm of breath and facial expressions.
Hao Rumeng, 17, has been practising Dunhuang dance for two and a half years. Her morning often begins at 6:30 in the studio and wraps up after eight hours of practice. Sometimes she ties a 10-kg sandbag to her legs to train her muscles.
“Dunhuang dance is a new genre of classical dance. It has distinct movements and requires systematic training every day,” said Jin.
The prototype of Dunhuang dance was born 40 years ago in “Silk Road” a dance drama to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1979.
Inspired by the drama, Gao Jinrong, then vice president of the provincial art school, devised a training system and gave birth to Dunhuang mural dance a year later.
Now Dunhuang dance has become a popular major with nearly a thousand graduates in China over the past four decades. The Lanzhou University of Arts and Science alone recruits 25 students every year.
One of the most famous dance-dramas “Thousand Hand Buddha” caused a sensation not only in China but also on the global stage when it toured in countries including the United States, Britain, Singapore and Malaysia. More dramas are being choreographed to take Dunhuang mural dance even further.
Back in its birthplace, performers continue to search for new inspirations from the ancient grottoes to perfect their presentation of the ancient art
“Seeing the murals with their own eyes achieves more than hours of studying history in class,” said Jin.
“Visiting the grottoes is a combined education covering both the traditional Chinese culture and aesthetics,” said Gao, who is now 85 years old. “They can see the connection between their dance and ancient culture.”