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(A part of THE NOMAD PROJECT and winner of a 2017 NDP Grant)

“In my dreams I see what I cannot see and hear what I cannot hear...”

- Yu Erniang, Ming Dynasty Female Literary Critic

PEONY DREAMS: ON THE OTHER SIDE OF SLEEP is a boundary-defying work of intercultural dance theater inspired by two of the most revered plays in Chinese literature: The Peony Pavilion and Dreams of Linchuan. Entwined within the narrative skeleton of these works is the parallel story of two women: a young dancer dreaming herself from the chaos of the Cultural Revolution as she writes letter after letter to faraway imagined persons and a female literary scholar, born hundreds of years earlier, who engages in a doomed love affair both with the story and (in her dreams) the author of The Peony Pavilion. Conjoining elements of Chinese opera with contemporary dance and music, Peony Dreams journeys across time and space, fiction and reality, life and death, to explore a world that lies on the other side of sleep.

For this production, Yin Mei Dance has received a 2017 National Dance Project Award. NEFA's National Dance Project is one of the country's major sources of funding for dance, and Yin Mei Dance is one of only twenty projects to receive this esteemed grant. Peony Dreams: On the Other Side of Sleep was made possible by the New England Foundation for the Arts' National Dance Project, with lead funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Peony Pavilion embodies the Buddhist concept that in dreams all boundaries melt, including the boundary between life and death. How dreams live inside us and how we embody them and how they transform us is the ultimate subject of China’s greatest literary work, and likewise forms the inspiration for Peony Dreams.  This work also forms part of Yin Mei's ongoing exploration of cultural identity in the lives of artists who, like her, grew up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.  Embracing the concept of nomadism as an apt description of these artists' spiritual quest, Peony Dreams is one in a continuing series of works the choreographer groups under the title of "The Nomad Project". 


Two Women

A young dancer grows up amidst the chaos of Mao’s Chinese Cultural Revolution, dreaming of escape from the mass insanity that surrounds her. One day she writes a letter to an imagined person she does not know, and she continues doing so, day after day, for 20 years. Many years later, discovering these letters, she finds that they unlock deep memories of an unsettled time, and hold answers to questions she has posed only in dreams. Another young woman, living hundreds of years earlier, discovers the doorway to her dreams in the writing of Tang Xianzu汤显祖, the author of The Peony Pavilion. So in love with the work and with its author is this young literary critic, that, after writing a feverish commentary on the work, she decides to kill herself—convinced she will never be able to enter this depicted world except through death.

Peony Dreams explores linkages between the young letter-writer (the choreographer herself), who is now a grown artist living and creating in the West, and the young literary commentator who loses herself in the world of The Peony Pavilion

The Peony Pavilion and Dreams of Linchuan

A play that caused a country to dream, The Peony Pavilion tells the story of a young woman who falls asleep in her parents’ peony garden pavilion and dreams of a lover she has yet to meet. Discovering upon waking that her beloved does not exist, the woman expires from lovesickness. As it happens, her dreamed-of lover passes by the girl’s house. Seeing her picture on the wall, he declares: “This is the woman I saw in my dreams—this is the woman I will marry!” Informed of her passing, he is despondent—but when her family brings him to her coffin, the girl suddenly wakes from death. The two immediately fall in love and live happily ever after. The effect of this work on Chinese history and culture almost cannot be overstated. Epitomizing a deep strain of romantic mysticism within Taoist philosophy, The Peony Pavilion states the case for life as an essential mystery.

Dreams of Linchuan, by contrast, makes the case for Confucian orderliness—for social conventions determined from the top down. Written 150 years after the creation of the The Peony Pavilion, the author subpoenas Tang Xianzu to the stage and makes him face a range of critics: the characters in his own play, the young scholar who killed herself, even the members of the audience. In an obvious precursor to Brechtian theater, Dreams of Linchuan delves into the intricate relationships between fiction and truth, dream and reality, text and performance, morality and passion, virtue and art, author and audience.

Peony Dreams

Peony Dreams: On The Other Side Of Sleep synthesizes these two works through the contemporary personal story of an artist who re-encounters her earlier self–her essential self, perhaps—through the lens of letters she wrote in her childhood. Portions of the actual letters, written by the choreographer herself as a young dancer in a Chinese government dance company, form the framework for the staging of Peony Dreams. Reading as well as "dancing/singing" the letters onstage, the performers interrogate the hopes and dreams of a young woman whose interior life was overrun by an exterior world that came, quite literally, surreal.

As in Ming Dynasty China, the prevailing mindset during the Cultural Revolution was that the individual was of no value or importance as such. Yet millions of Chinese secretly harbored the belief that their dreams could transform even the grimmest reality. The “postmodern” scenario employed in Dreams of Linchuan is here superimposed on a story that finds linkages between the lovers’ dreams in Peony Pavilion; the young commentator who throws her life away for love of a piece of literature; and the hopes and dreams of a young dancer growing up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

From a production standpoint, Peony Dreams will incorporate elements of both Chinese opera, Western music, and post-modern dance theater. Among the performers in Peony Dreams will be one of the leading disciples of the Mei Lan-fang opera genre today. The staging approach for Peony Dreams will, as in Dreams of Linchuan, invite the audience to question the performance as they experience it and push the performers to explore a world beyond the physical present—a world bordered by dreams. To present this other world visually and sonically, EEG technology will be employed throughout the performance to project the performers’ brainwaves onto the stage in a visual and aural installation reflecting the metaphysical transformations they undergo as they perform.

In sum, Peony Dreams thus provides a dream passageway into the question of Chinese cultural identity, spiritual conflict, human desire, and cross-cultural awakening.

Community Engagement

Peony Dreams is a trans-disciplinary project that involves lectures, performances, installations, and workshops through the storytelling vehicle of Chinese Opera and dance. This project engages with the audience through a workshop series and installation that run in tandem with the performance event, focusing on our shared experience of memory and not-always-so-shared experiences of Nationalism. From over 2,000 letters written by the 14-year-old Yin Mei and displayed in the gallery, to a student workshop where participants begin to tell their own stories, Peony Dreams seeks to engage with the audience through new and multi-level experiences.

As a master teacher for over 30 years, and a current Professor of Dance at Queens College, Yin Mei brings her considerable pedagogical experience to the development of the project’s outreach component: “Reach Out 14.” Fourteen is a celebrated age in so many cultures and this engagement program celebrates that moment in time/right of passage with students throughout the touring of this work.

Because of the depth of inquiry for this dense topic of memory and national identity within this specific time period, Peony Dreams falls under the larger project title, The Nomad Project, which is supported by a fiscal sponsorship arrangement with the New York Foundation for the Arts. Peony Dreams: On the Other Side of Sleep was made possible by the New England Foundation for the Arts' National Dance Project, with lead funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.