ONE of China's greatest actresses and singers, Zhou Xuan (1918 or 1920-1957), was famous as the nation's Golden Voice and the luminous star in the dark and gritty "Street Angel" (1937) classic and many other hits.
Her personal life was one of great highs and tragedy and her life story has been a favorite subject for dramatists, sometimes sanitized, often focusing on the orphan girl's search for her family and the colorful scene in old Shanghai of the 1930s.
The latest is a four-act dance drama "Zhou Xuan" to be performed next Saturday (November 10), at the Shanghai Grand Theater as part of the Shanghai International Arts Festival. Zhou's hits such as "Shanghai Nights," "Four Seasons Song" and "The Wandering Songstress" will be part of the soundtrack.
The dance "Zhou Xuan" is a production of the Shanghai Opera House Dance Troupe, where dancer and actress Zhou Jie is the artistic director and dance director of the performance.
It is the troupe's first original program in 20 years premiering in 2010 for the World Expo Shanghai.
The dance will tour next spring and stage on Broadway.
Zhou Xuan was sold by her impoverished family in Jiangsu Province to a procurer for a brothel, but she was adopted by a kind family and her voice was instantly appreciated. She shot to stardom.
Life was not only dazzling and professionally successful, but personally desperate. She had two failed marriages and was twice abandoned by lovers when they learned she was pregnant. She struggled with addiction and mental breakdowns, going in and out of mental hospitals until she died of encephalitis in 1957.
In the latest dance drama, the two leading dancers are Song Jie, performing Zhou Xuan and Chen Han, performing Tian Ya, the male lead. It was choreographed by Chen Zhaobin, Zhou Liya and Yi Jie.
Artistic director Zhou herself has a long and distinguished career. When she was 12, she joined the opera dance troupe and has taken leading roles in works such as "Dagger Society" ("Xiao Dao Hui") and "Banping Mountain" ("Ban Ping Shan"). She opened her own dance school and has appeared in films and TV series such as "Reign Behind a Curtain," or "Chui Lian Ting Zheng," and "Yang Gui Fei" about the famous courtesan of that name.
In 2007 Zhou returned to her Shanghai troupe from the United States where she has run the J&L Dance School in Houston, Texas, since 1997, with dancer and choreographer Xu Li.
"I was excited and thankful to be back, because when I had left, the troupe was popular around the country as well as in Paris and Japan," Zhou said.
But the company had fallen on hard times. "There were few people, no money, no works, no talents and no creativity. The pressure was huge, and I had to create a dance program for our troupe."
With the World Expo Shanghai just three years off, she decided to dedicate the dance drama to the Expo, a gift from Shanghai.
"While I was abroad, I missed Shanghai and home so much, every street, every dish like soup dumplings," Zhou said. "So many people were going to the Expo, and I thought we could cook a feast in music and dance."
The life of legendary Zhou Xuan was an ideal choice, according to artistic director Zhou. Her singing reflected pursuit of truth, beauty and the good. Though she started life as an orphan with bleak prospects, she still became a huge star beloved in China and Asia. However, there was still a darker side.
"While I looked at her emotions in her eyes, I thought that maybe her temperament was like that of our city and her music was really the memory of a generation," Zhou said.
While "Zhou Xuan" was performed at the National Center for Performing Arts in 2010, Zhou said it represented the collective memory of Shanghai people; others said it represented all Chinese people.
With stage elements such as traditional shikumen houses (with decorated stone thresholds), lanes and the Bund, the show presents old city scenes like flowing image that take the audience back in time.
After Zhou danced "Banping Mountain" at the age of 17 in Beijing, many Shanghai newspapers wanted to interview her. She put a "do not disturb" sign on her door, thinking that she didn't want to be a star.
Growing up the countryside of Shanghai, dance became the only thing that mattered. Becoming an artist was difficult, she had few choices except for hard work.
"When I was young, my motto was 'you have to think of bitterness as sweetness'," Zhou said. "You don't want to become a star, you want to become an artist." Young dancers start before they are 10 and by the time they are 30, they usually retire, not knowing what to do next. There's not much money in dance, it requires an enormous amount of hard work and injuries are common.
"The road to dance is like walking to the altar," Zhou said. "It is belief. If you want it, you go, if you want to make money, then this is not the way."
Zhou Jie devoted so much to the show because the troupe hadn't put on an original program in 20 years and she wanted to make a splash.
"Zhou Xuan" will begin a North American tour next spring, including a Broadway. The three-year touring contract calls for no less than 45 shows a year; the touring company includes 60 people.
For foreign audiences, English versions of the songs will be created for the background score, preserving their melodies and rhythms, according to artistic director Zhou.