Eight BYU performing groups that just finished touring China saw what university President Kevin J Worthen meant when he described the impact the tour would have on students and the people they interacted with.
“You are not here by chance or coincidence,” he said as the tour was about to launch. “With each of you, there are certain things that will look like it’s serendipitous that you’re here and that you’re a part of this. You may feel lucky, but these kinds of events are not by coincidence.”
The Chamber Orchestra. The Young Ambassadors. Living Legends. The International Folk Dancers. Vocal Point. The Ballroom Dance Company. And to mix things up on stage: the Cougarettes and the Dunk Team.
The Chamber Orchestra performed with the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing on May 21. All of the groups began performing together May 23, first in Beijing, then Xi’an, then finally in Shanghai where the tour wraps up June 3.
President Worthen said the “BYU Spectacular” tour is by far the largest performing tour BYU has ever assembled. With 160 performers, a support staff and university officials bringing the touring entourage to more than 200 people, the tour is easy to notice.
Being noticed and sharing a message of friendship are among the objectives of the tour, which is taking place on the 40th anniversary of the BYU Young Ambassador’s first visit to China in 1979.
“The door of China had been closed for many, many years,” said Wenhao Mu, a BYU choral conducting master’s student from China. “When the door re-opened, we … had very little understanding about Western culture.”
BYU brought its unique slice of Americana to China; and the BYU students got the chance to absorb landmarks in Chinese culture: The Great Wall, Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven and Terra Cotta Warriors.
BYU students in 1979 saw streets filled with bicycles that are now crowded with cars. Shopping malls now carry every western brand. Information signs in public places are often written in both English and Chinese.
President Worthen said that when he was younger, he would hear stories about the 1979 tour and question whether that visit was such a “big deal.” He would later meet with a Chinese Ministry of Education official who confirmed the impact that first tour had. The minister told him: “If you were to ask people over 55 in China what are the great universities in the United States it would Harvard, Yale, and BYU — and not necessarily in that order.”
President Worthen believes members of the touring company were not in this show by coincidence but were chosen specifically, and with purpose.
The BYU performers’ enthusiasm was evident away from the concert halls as well. Impromptu performances attracted sizable crowds as members of the tour danced and sang in the new and expansive Tang Paradise cultural theme park adjacent to the tour’s hotel in Xi’an. Any time the Americans were in public in small or large groups, Chinese locals were there with cameras out.
The performing companies’ skills are not only being displayed during the tour, they are undergoing formidable tests as well.
Young Ambassadors Director Randy Boothe said his group learned just after arriving in Beijing that some of their equipment was delayed. One of his teams first stops in Beijing, unexpectedly, was Ikea to buy materials for several props.
Cougarettes Director Jodi Maxfield said large “Lion King” puppets her team operated didn’t make it, forcing them to rearrange choreography. Audio Engineer Eric Kopp opened the Beijing show with sound equipment that had been rented in China and operated without the benefit of pre-planned programming. The Dunk Team had to find basketball goal equipment and replacement landing mats.
Adding to the challenge was the unique way members of the individual groups played into another group’s performance numbers — like the Cougarettes who were performing in a Broadway show number and the Dunk Team that was on stage singing.
Artistic director of the China Spectacular Janielle Christensen agreed with President Worthen about how each person involved was prepared to help carry out this performance.
“(These performers) have been preparing, whether they knew it or not, their whole lives for this moment,” Christensen said. “They have been prepared — their spirits, their talents — and they have dedicated themselves and they have consecrated their talents to be prepared to be a part of this group right now.”
More than a variety show
Christensen said BYU did not want this to be just another show. It had to be different and it was going to be bigger than anything BYU had done before.
Research for the tour began two years ago. “We did our homework: ‘What does China love?’” Christensen said. Broadway, American clogging, Native American connections were on the list. “We brought together elements we knew they would love and be entertained by, and it became very obvious that we needed to take more than one group.”
Christensen wanted the audience to not only be touched by the excellence and beauty of the performers but also the deeper message of the connection BYU and China share — the importance of ancestors. A script, in Chinese, pointed to that and weaved the individual performing numbers into a storyline about ancestors and the family.
Chinese guests, she said, have also seen BYU’s visit as a significant token of friendship at a time when political relations between China and the United States are strained.
“What we’re hearing from the Chinese ministries is this immense sense of gratitude that we, in spite of all that, we would make the effort to come,” Christensen said. “They realized that getting here must not have been easy, and it wasn’t with the visas and paperwork. It was not easy to get over 200 people here, but we persevered.”
The BYU Spectacular has been a witness to this perseverance. Putting together the touring arrangements, thousands of hours of work and practice and sacrifice on the part of every individual involved, the creation of the program and costumes and sets, and pre-programming tech equipment. The list goes on.
Each of the performing groups sacrificed time and energy but also had to endure the loss of equipment not arriving, new choreography, and the makeshift props from Ikea. Several of the group leaders said those unexpected developments added to the educational value of the tour and the professional development of the performers.
Maxwell said seven of her Cougarettes have been practicing since November to learn how to operate giant puppets for the “Circle of Life” number from “The Lion King.” The life-sized puppets were measured to be specially fitted to each performer — and were among the props that were delayed.
Looking at the experience, Maxwell said the missing puppets was probably the most disappointing element of the show that did not make it to China, but she knew they would be able to put something together.
Christensen said the performers have tackled complications each day since arriving in China and the company has had to jump hurdle after hurdle, some seemingly insurmountable, but her mindset is that “one can be disappointed, but never discouraged.”
“We went to work. We prayed for a miracle. And we got our miracle,” Christensen said. “It maybe wasn’t the one we prayed for — our stuff did not miraculously appear at customs, sail right through and appear on the stage, but we got a miracle nevertheless.”
Christensen said even with all of these miracles happening, the bottom line is that they had their most important piece of the show with them the entire time: the BYU students.
The delayed equipment cleared Chinese customs Monday, May 27, and was incorporated back into the show in Shanghai for the tour’s final performances on May 31 and June 1.
The lion puppets were back, the microphones were synced to the correct performer on the spot and the main screen projection for the opening number and “A Million Dreams” was finally used. Even more than before, the show came to life with the original props and gear.
Show producer Michael Handley said after going through the trial of the tech not arriving and having to scramble to rent the missing items, which was no small feat, it was a dream to see the show finally come together in Shanghai.
“Our opening night in Shanghai has been everything we hoped and dreamed about for two years,” Handley said. “It brings me an immense sense of satisfaction and joy. We have one more night that I can look and say, ‘It’s all here, the job has been completed.'”
Boothe said a Chinese Performing Arts Association official, who traveled with the BYU company, said she wanted BYU to come back in 10 years for the 50th anniversary of BYU’s first China tour. Whether that will happen has yet to be determined.