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Dancing to the Stars


Photographs by Zhang Bangren and Huang Yingguo

Nuo dance is not so simple to define. From an academic angle, Nuo dance refers to Nuo opera, which evolved from the Nuo sacrificial ceremony. The ancient ceremony, a brand of ancient Chinese sorcery culture, required actors hidden behind ferocious masks and unique costumes to dance, which was meant to ward off evil spirits and ghosts. Of course, words aren’t exactly ideal to describe the event, and luckily this particular ritual has been depicted in film. In 2005, the movie Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, directed by Zhang Yimou and starring legendary Japanese actor Ken Takakura, featured Nuo dance prominently.

Nuo dance’s origins lie in Jiangxi Province from the early Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD). Over its 2,000-year life, the opera has maintained continuous popularity in the region, especially in Nanfeng and Shangli counties. Nanfeng carefully preserves its Nuo tradition, aided by temples devoted to Nuo gods that date back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Nanfeng’s Nuo sacrificial ceremonies are performed by 150 different troupes composed of over 2,000 actors. Shiyou, one village in Nanfeng, has been protecting Nuo heritage for the past six centuries. Created by the Han ethnic group, Nuo dance has been performed in Shiyou for 16 days during every first lunar month for the past 600 years. In general, the 16-day event includes an inviting ceremony, dancing, ghost catching and fortune-telling.

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