With her long black hair pulled back, Chinese impresario Ulan Xuerong leans forward as she speaks in emphatic Mandarin about "Memory 5D+" — her $6-million multimedia extravaganza which has its world premiere at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium this weekend, for just two performances.
"China has so many extraordinary musicians, and I've long wanted to bring them to a world audience," Xuerong says. "So three years ago I began developing this show."
"Memory 5D+" marries digital animation and projection with virtuoso Chinese singers and musicians playing traditional instruments, all knitted together by a story inspired by ancient Chinese cosmology.
John Hughes, a Hollywood special effects wizard who has worked on "Frozen," "Moana," "Kung Fu Panda 2" and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," is serving as visual consultant and co-writer to help make the production accessible to Americans. He follows Xuerong with his eyes during an interview and occasionally nods when he recognizes a Chinese word or phrase as Xuerong explains ancient Taiji philosophy: Natural phenomena have two aspects, yin and yang, which are opposite but complementary, such as dark and light, moon and sun.
Pasadena has been chosen to launch this ambitious project partly because of "the many Chinese who live in this area," Xuerong says. But her ultimate audience is meant to go beyond, to anyone interested or invested in Chinese culture. Does that include the local entertainment industry? "Oh, yes, definitely," Xuerong says.
The show begins with a bang — the Big Bang — as a giant projection screen fills with an explosion. Two elements, swirling like tadpoles, eventually become two men swimming live in the ether — OK, they're not really swimming but, rather, suspended from wires. They represent Yin and Yang, played by two acrobatic twins, Yang Haoxiang and Yang Haoyun.
A man and a woman appear, singing a powerful, ululating song. It's in Mongolian, and although you won't know the words and no surtitles are offered, you will sense what they are singing about: the dawn of the creation. The song is "Canticle to the Sun," and accompanying animation shows seeds hurtling from space to Earth, sprouting into plants and flowers.
As in any good story, there is conflict. The harmony of Yin and Yang is broken when both fall in love with the Flower Goddess. Everything is told through choreography, projections and music, most of which has been written especially for this production and is a mix of Chinese folk and pop music and even world fusion.
That the immersive storytelling of "Memory" evokes Cirque du Soleil is no accident. "I saw Cirque du Soleil several times in Las Vegas and Macau to study why they had such audience appeal," Xuerong says.
Her production features 25 musicians, many playing traditional Chinese instruments, and 20 dancers. Xuerong was brought up in Inner Mongolia, and she has a penchant for the music of minority groups. Case in point is guitarist and singer Erkin Abdulla from the remote Xinjiang region, home to a sizable population of China's Uighur ethnic minority. His music is inflected with flamenco and jazz, some of it echoing the Gipsy Kings. When asked about whether he has heard the Andalusian group, he replies yes — he admires the band. Instrumentalist Lucina Yue, who also is from Xinjiang but now lives in New York, plays the konghou, an ancient Chinese harp. And Hughes is particularly impressed with Zhou Siyao, who plays the pipa, or Chinese lute, with feverish energy.
"It sounds like hyperbole," he says, "but she's like watching Jimi Hendrix, she's that good."
Hughes met Xuerong in August through "guanxi" — Chinese for "connections" or "networking" — made through his wife, who is Chinese. Beyond simple phrases, Hughes and Xuerong do not speak each other's language. So how did they communicate? They had translators and ...
"When we had a few drinks," Xuerong says in Chinese, "he would suddenly become fluent in Chinese, and I'd become fluent in English." Hughes seems to understand what Xuerong is saying from her broad gestures of holding a cup, and he laughs.
"In Western storytelling we focus on good versus evil," Hughes says. "This story's a little different. It's more about: You'll never win by defeating the enemy. You have to find a way to coexist, as equals. It's very simple, but very different from how we usually do stories here." And while the main story is told through the conflict between Yin and Yang, he says, the idea of the five elements of Chinese philosophy — wood, fire, earth, metal and water — and also the five senses are woven in, thus the "5D+" in the title.
"This has been a huge undertaking, a major challenge," Xuerong says. "We'll be watching closely how the audience here takes it in." Talks are underway to take the show to locations in China and Europe.
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Where: Pasadena Civic Auditorium, 300 E. Green St.
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Information: (800) 982-2787, memory5d.com
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes (no intermission)
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