Dance Play “Pearl” to Celebrate Pulitzer Prize-Winner Pearl S. Buck

Article By Lynn Chawengwongsa
Photo by Niko

“Spring, River, Flowers, Moon, Night.” Tang dynasty poet Zhang Ruoxu once used these five words to title a poem about the passing of human existence. Now, a new biographical dance theater production at Lincoln Center called “Pearl” is borrowing the poem title to narrate the life of acclaimed novelist Pearl S. Buck.

“Pearl” is world-renowned director and choreographer Daniel Ezralow’s effort to create a show championing Buck and her advocacy for multiculturalism.

Having traveled extensively between the United States and China, Buck embraced the two cultures. Shortly after her birth in West Virginia in 1892, the writer accompanied her missionary parents to China where she grew up at the turn of the 20th century. Before her death in 1973, Buck had won a Pulitzer Prize for “The Good Earth” as well as a Nobel Prize, written widely on Asian cultures and advocated for women’s and minority rights.

In a press conference on Wednesday, Ezralow explained the importance of exploring the life of the novelist: “I think her life is a kind of a representation and also an example for all of us—how we can embrace cross-culturalism and embrace this world as one world and without boundaries.”

Daniel Ezralow

The production, an American-Chinese collaboration that was conceived and developed in the United States, required a year’s worth of research, including a trip to China.

Angela Xiaolei Tang

Angela Xiaolei Tang, the production’s Chinese producer who worked alongside American producer Steven Ship, traveled to Zhenjiang, China, where Buck lived for several years, with Ezralow. There, they visited a Buddhist temple in possession of 2,000-year-old stone carvings of calligraphy and saw the Yangtze River, both of which served as inspirations for the show’s production design and impressive miniature river of real flowing water.

For Tang, working with acclaimed staff and crew was an unexpected but welcome challenge. The biggest challenge, according to Tang, was concern over clashing ideas. “Everyone in the team are fantastic artists,” she said, “but they have big personalities.”

Steven Ship, Angela Xiaolei Tang and Daniel Ezralow

Despite conflicting creative directions, Ezralow was certain he wanted to remain loyal to Buck’s life story, making an effort to convey the author’s Chinese and American influences by blending the two cultures together through an “East meets West” concept. In casting his dancers, Ezralow intentionally assembled an ensemble of multicultural dancers, five of whom are from China. The director brought in Tai Chi and Chinese dance instructors to help him develop a fluid choreography and to prepare his dancers for the show.

When asked about his creative direction, Ezralow stated: “I was very conscious of the fact that, yes, Pearl grew up in China and she came to America, but Pearl fought for causes of multiculturalism across this world, which we need to do, too.

“Pearl” premieres Aug. 27 at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center and is running for a limited engagement of four performances until Aug. 30. It features special guest dancer Margie Gillis, the first Western artist to bring modern dance to China after the Cultural Revolution, and an original score by Japanese composer Jun Miyake.

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