IT'S 221 BC and the Qin Dynasty in China. A brave young archer saves the life of his emperor by stopping an arrow with his own body. He dies with glory.
Back home, his beautiful grieving bride, Xin Nu, lovingly carves a life-size sculpture of her husband. The figure so moves Emperor Qin Shi Huang that he commands all clay sculptors in the land to create a mighty army of thousands of warriers in memory of the young hero. These detailed artifacts are to be buried with the emperor at his death to serve him in his afterlife as imperial guards.
This memorial, the Terracotta Army, lay entombed in Xian, a remote part of China, until its sensational discovery 13 years ago. Hailed as the eighth Wonder of the World, the size of the project and the historical data it revealed captured the imagination of people around the globe.
Now a song and dance troupe from the city of Xian has created a vivid theatrical pageant of the story, complete with a stack-heeled, long-sleeved emperor, dancing girls with streamers, lively battle scenes, and a stageful of ``terracotta'' soldiers.
Created in 1984, the dance drama has been performed in China over 200 times and seen by numerous foreign dignitaries, including Henry Kissinger and Queen Elizabeth II. This summer it was brought to the West for the first time - to the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, then for a week's run at the Royal Festival Hall in London.
Its novelty for Western audiences lies in its short descriptive tableaux and the brightly contrasting costumes of the Qin Dynasty. Especially impressive were the girls' scarlet gowns, whose long sleeves suddenly extended even further to make long ribbons of color, and the Liberace-style spangled suit of the warring emperor.
More a combination of mime, drama, theatrical effects, and acrobatics than pure dance, ``The Emperor's Warriers: the Soul of the Terracotta Army'' constantly reminded one of other productions (especially the Bolshoi Ballet's ``Spartacus''). But here the Chinese soldiers were crouching behind their shields, marching in diagonal formation across the stage, high stepping with spears at the ready, though done without the Russians' attack.
The leading female dancer (no dancers were identified in the program) had a supple torso and expressive arms and hands. She moved quickly on her heels with a charming air of submission. Her ``husband'' was strong in athletic leaps, and the emperor strode through his kingdom with stiff legs and upturned feet.
The Xian Song and Dance Company boasts variety in its repertoire. Some of this is distinctly Chinese fare, though the company says it can perform such Western classics as Swan Lake and Don Quixote. One wonders what these demanding works would be like. While the troupe as a whole offered graceful entertainment, few dancers appeared to have the discipline of footwork or the flexibility required for classical ballet.
A surprise for many in the audience was that the Chinese spectacle - source of great nationalistic pride - did not present the historical tale in the anticipated traditional form, as is the case in the Japanese No or Kabuki. This production of dynasties long gone seemed almost contemporary. One might have expected oriental culture, not modern techonology, but ancient warriors fought their battles to the flickerings of strobe lighting. Death on the battlefield was greeted by the loud hissing noises of canisters of dry ice that covered the bodies in clouds of mist.
Two graceful dancers, perched on upturned drums, entertained the emperor with undulating movements like the disco dancers of today.
The music also offered no twangings or echoing pluckings from ancient court instruments, but catchy Westernized strains. The pleasant recurring love theme could have come straight from any Hollywood romantic movie.
Yet at the final curtain, traditional oriental courtesy and charm abounded when the entire cast, dressed as terracotta soldiers, clapped and waved to us, the audience.