With lavishly embroidered costumes, elaborate make-up and acrobatics, a troupe of nearly 90 Peking Opera performers and musicians began a special US tour this week at New York's Lincoln Centre.
The tour by the Jingju Theatre Company of Beijing, with performances in New York and Washington, is timed to mark the 120th anniversary of the birth of China's greatest opera star, Mei Lanfang, who introduced his art form to US audiences nearly 90 years ago.
"This tour is special because it is by the particular troupe that is the direct artistic inheritor of Mei Lanfang's art," said Elizabeth Wichmann-Walczak, an expert on the form who directs the Asian theatre programme at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu.
Mei Lanfang toured the United States in 1930 and is credited with revolutionising the tradition of men performing female roles. He created a style known as the "Mei Lanfang School".
"It was the first time that it was seriously introduced in the United States by an important artist and company," Wichmann-Walczak said about the US tour, adding that Mei Lanfang was celebrated by theatre and film stars of the time.
His 80-year-old son, Mei Baojiu, one of China's top opera stars, organised the programme for the current US tour, which follows in his father's footsteps. It includes five shorter plays, each featuring a major female character that would have been played by his father, and a full-length production.
All of the plays were created by Mei Lanfang, who died in 1961 at age 66.
"We want to let the American people understand that Mei Lanfang's art is a unique form of drama that tells a story through song and dance. It represents and exemplifies Chinese Opera," Mei Baojiu said in an interview. The tour, he said would "strengthen the China-US relationship".
Peking Opera, which combines unique storytelling, acrobatics, acting and martial arts with Chinese singing and dance, began developing at the end of the 18th century. It was recognised as the national form of theatre in the 19th century as it spread throughout China.
"Every major city and province has a jingju company," said Wichmann-Walczak.
"It is a unique theatre form. The actors are the major creators," she added.
The actors traditionally composed the music, which is part of character interpretation, and created every aspect of the play.
"It is really a total theatre form using all of the elements of the performing arts," said Wichmann-Walczak.
The troupe, whose opening performance was at the Lincoln Centre on Wednesday, is scheduled to take to the stage tomorrow and Sunday before travelling to Washington for two performances at the John F. Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts.