Despite the years of sacrifice and grueling practice, ballet dancer Vina almost turned down a plum role in her first 2004 Chinese New Year show. Since emigrating from China nearly eight years before, she'd given up dancing because of a nerve injury that radiated pain from her lower back through her left leg, making it difficult for her to stand for longer than 10 minutes at a time.
But the opportunity to dance the ancient Chinese folk tale "Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea" -- and the opportunity to play He Xiangu, the only female deity among seven males -- lured her back to the stage.
Only four years since making her return, Vina, 46, is the executive director of Divine Performing Arts' Chinese New Year Spectacular, a 2 1/2 -hour extravaganza featuring 21 acts, nearly 100 performers, elaborate backdrops and computerized visual elements. The show is back in town for the fourth time, at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium through Sunday.
Born in Guangzhou, the capitol of Guangdong province, Vina, who goes by only one name, studied dance since she was 12 and earned a bachelor's degree in art from the Beijing Dance Academy. "But none of it was classical [Chinese] dance," Vina says. "I didn't really appreciate the traditional culture because I hadn't really seen any of it. I just ignored it and refused to do any of those things."
It wasn't until she moved to Sydney, Australia, in the early 1990s that she shifted her attention from ballet to the traditional arts of Chinese dance, calligraphy and painting. "I found that in all these arts . . . there is a very peaceful, pure beauty, which I didn't pick up when I was growing up," Vina says. "I realized there should be someone to present and share this culture with the world."
The celebration of traditional Chinese culture is at the heart of the Chinese New Year Spectacular, which combines Chinese melodies with Western orchestration. Chinese instruments like pipa (a four-stringed lute), erhu (a two-stringed violin), dizi (a bamboo flute), luo (gong), gu (drum) and cha (cymbal) share the stage with violins, violas, cellos, brass instruments and woodwinds. But even as the show celebrates Chinese song and dance, it aims for a sense of spectacle that transcends cultural singularity.
"We are trying to bring heaven to earth," says musician Jing Xian, who composed much of the music for the show.
Despite its noble aspirations, the New York-based troupe has not been without controversy. The show has ties to Falun Gong (also known as Falun Dafa), a spiritual discipline that was introduced in China in 1992 and banned by the Chinese government in 1999. (Vina credits Falun Gong with healing her injury.) Last winter, the Chinese consulate general sent a letter asking Orange County not to recognize the New York-based troupe's Southern California performances. The Chinese government has also pressured sponsors to cancel their support of the show. But the performers would rather focus on their art and on elevating the spirits of their audience.
"I think the big difference from our show and ordinary shows is that it's so pure and so clean," Xian says. "We try to bring real beauty to this world . . . so people can feel the pure energy."
Chinese New Year Spectacular
Where: Pasadena Civic Auditorium, 300 E. Green St., Pasadena
When: 8 tonight, 2 and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Ends Sunday.
Price: $35 to $188
Contact: (800) 817-7116, www.divineshows.com/la
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