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April 18, 2010

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Footlight fame for dance star

Choreographer Huang Doudou flits between Broadway and Shanghai as his staging skills keep him in demand but there was a time when a dance academy rejected him because his legs were too short, Nie Xin discovers.

Although the influence of celebrated Chinese choreographer Huang Doudou on stages around the world keeps growing, he doesn't ignore his Shanghai roots and keeps his feet firmly planted on China ground.

The 33-year-old dance master is continually lauded for the quality of his work which keeps on getting him booked for the best gigs, such as his most recent contract with the revered Metropolitan Opera in New York.

But these days he is busy putting the finishing touches to performances he will be responsible for as part of his World Expo commitments.

Huang was chosen by director Bartlett Sher to choreograph the Met's latest production of Offenbach's classic "Tales of Hoffman" ("Les Contes d'Hoffman") which premiered on Broadway in December last year.

Described by one critic as "good theater - and even better opera," another said "dance is an important plot element in the tale of Olympia and Huang's choreography pervaded that act, with five ballerina's en pointe all costumed as Olympia ... the end of the act was a sort of mad ball."

The dizzying heights and exacting standards of world-class choreography, however, were not in the sights of a 10-year-old boy from Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province who in 1987 was rejected by the Beijing Academy of Dance because his legs were not long enough to be a professional dancer.

Huang talks about his early days and celebrated career in a cafe during a break from his busy schedule in Shanghai.

Wearing a casual suit, the big man with a shy smile has rushed back from shooting a short-film for the Expo.

"When my parents wanted me to be a dancer as a child, I was not that happy to do it," he recalled.

"In my mind, all the dancers and their teachers were female."

He wanted to learn Chinese kung fu like a real boy.

He said that after being rejected by the academy he spent two years exercising to stretch his legs and ligaments.

"I suffered a lot of pain in those years but finally reached the standards they needed," he said.

Huang graduated from Shanghai Dance School close to the top of the class in 1995 then entered the Beijing academy, leaving it after two years to join Shanghai Song and Dance Ensemble where he is currently Artistic Director and Principal Dancer.

Combining ancient, classical and contemporary traditions and techniques, Huang is celebrated throughout China on stage and television as a dance icon by audiences of all ages.

He started as a choreographer in 1998 with the show "Spirit of Martial Arts" which was first performed in China in 1999.

His subsequent works with Chinese historical themes have included "Six Dance Imageries from the Zhou Dynasty" in 2000, commissioned by composer Tan Dun, and "Chinese Go" for the Vail International Dance Festival, chaired by former US President Gerald Ford.

The "Hoffman" production was the second time Huang had worked for the Metropolitan Opera and he was "so surprised to be invited."

He made his Met debut in 2006 as choreographer and principal dancer for the opera "The First Emperor," with top Chinese director Zhang Yimou and musical master Tan.

"The First Emperor" is regarded as the premier opera dealing with Chinese history and art.

"The two-year production had a giant staircase on stage," he said. "When I work as a choreographer in a dance company, my focus is on the dance itself, but in an opera the plot comes first."

Huang was the only Chinese in December's powerhouse "Hoffman" team, working with Sher, conductor James Levine, set designer Michael Yeargan, costume designer Catherine Zuber, and lighting designer James F. Ingalls.

Compared with other operas which usually have fewer dancing parts, the new "Hoffmann" had 10 dance sequences.

"I created dances that fit naturally in the space provided. When working with a singer, the first thing I consider is not to affect their vocal production.

"During preparation for 'Hoffmann' Sher sent me his ideas for New York and I worked through them with dancers in Shanghai. I then sent him videos to look at what I had done," Huang said.

He is regarded as one of the world's three most important young choreographers creating new dances for the Met's productions this season, together with "Aida" choreographer Alexei Ratmansky and "Carmen" choreographer Christopher Wheeldon.

In China, Huang has been designated as a "First Class National Artist," and his performances and choreography have been critically acclaimed abroad.

He has received countless awards from the Chinese government and international organizations.

"Some people think I am a big fan of winning awards," he said.

"Yes, I take part in many competitions and see prizes as my final goals.

"I want to prove myself through these awards, as my body shape is not as perfect as a talented dancer."

Huang's star seems to have been in the ascendancy since a 2002 interview in Time magazine which described him as a "national sensation ... reinventing (Chinese) mainland dance." The same year he featured on the cover of Dance Spirit magazine, with an extensive story entitled "Flying to the Peak of Dance."

"I felt very lucky because since then I got more international attention and more chances to cooperate with top artists," Huang said.

"I started to get attention at a higher level in Chinese culture."

In February 2005, Huang won a scholarship from the Asian Cultural Council which lead to further study and research in the United States.

"The experience to study abroad in New York helped my career a lot. I started to think about combining more dance art and Chinese culture on the world stage," he said.

"It is too early to define my dancing style, however, as I only have 10 years' experience in choreography," Huang said.

Some of his most notable works have also been "Dancing Dancing I" in which he combined modern multi-media, modern acoustics and optic technology with dramatic performance, performed as part of the International Opera Master Class performances at the Shanghai Conservatory.

Another was "Golden Door and Silver Threads," a large-scale performance which won the Grand Prize at the Second National Minority Literary Festival.

The performance had its international debut in July 2002 at the Champs Elysee Theater in Paris in China's bid to host the World Expo 2010.

Huang also performed a featured segment entitled "Chinese Kung Fu" for worldwide audiences at the closing ceremony of the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.

Having performed in most of the world's leading cities, he published at age 30 his first autobiography, named "Dou Zhi Fei Wu."

"Thirty is an important age, signifying growing from a boy to a real man and I wanted to review my life and share it with the public," he said.

"To me dance is the best way to express my feelings but I recorded the difficulties I experienced during my life through writing, which is a more rational form."

Huang said he would spend most of his time and energy on the upcoming World Expo in Shanghai.

He presented the show "Inspire Expo" on January 25 to celebrate the 100-day countdown and is now rehearsing with other artists, including foreign, a show to be staged at Expo Park every day during the event.

At the back of his mind will be another Broadway offer to choreograph a show about martial arts icon Bruce Lee.

He admires Jet Lee's kung fu film "Shaolin Tempo" and admits to kung fu's influence on his dance style.

"I've combined elements of Chinese kung fu in my dance to express the beauty of male strength," he said.


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