Denver’s ‘Terracotta Warriors 3D’ Is A Musical Designed To Make You Flinch

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<p>(Corey H. Jones/CPR News)</p>
<p>Artists perform in front of a screen made up of LED light bulbs that project 3D images during a preview of “Terracotta Warriors 3D” at the University of Denver&#039;s Newman Center for the Performing Arts on Monday, Aug. 10, 2015.</p>

When watching the story of China’s first emperor unfold live on stage, the last thing you expect to see is a bird flying right at your head.

But it happens during “Terracotta Warriors 3D,” an action musical that premiered this week in Denver. The show runs at the University of Denver’s Newman Center for the Performing Arts through Sept. 6, 2015.

Denver resident Cathye Hudson said that when the bird flew at her, she ducked. And so did everyone else.

“I saw the smoke, I saw the leaves on the trees moving. It’s just so realistic,” Hudson said. “Even though you may not totally understand what’s going on, you’re just locked into what you’re seeing on stage.”

Hudson said she’d never seen anything like the preview performance she watched while wearing special 3D glasses.

That's because a gigantic wall of more than 2 million tiny LED light bulbs stands behind the live action, according to the show’s writer and director Dennis Law.

How A Denver Surgeon Became A Theater Producer

Law grew up in Hong Kong and says he always had a passion for the arts. But for years, he worked as a surgeon in Denver. Then, a 1997 foray into Chinese martial arts films opened the door to create what he calls action musicals. Three years later, he retired as a surgeon to produce art.

Now, his productions meld elements of Chinese performance art and Broadway musicals. Law first staged “Terracotta Warriors” in 2004 and last year did a 3D version in Beijing. He says this remake uses new technology developed in China.

“To deliver a 3D experience on a theater stage has really never been done before,” said Law. “I was able to put together a show that I really believe is first in human history.”

The production is flashy and elaborate, not unlike the opening ceremony at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Law said he hopes the extravagant 3D effects entice more American audiences to see the show.

“I really think that cross-cultural understanding between the East and the West is an important thing,” he said. “And I create these musicals so that the West can appreciate Chinese art and culture at its best.”

The Story Of The Terracotta Warriors

Emperor Qin Shi Huang is known as a ruthless leader who united China through war before his death in 210 B.C. An army of terracotta warriors guarded the emperor’s mausoleum, which was unearthed in 1974.

This story is told through the eyes of the ruler’s eunuch and close friend, Zhao Gao. Law imagines the eunuch served his Emperor with loyalty and resentment.

“It’s much more than a story of a powerful emperor, somebody that tortured people and killed concubines,” he said. “We must understand the reason behind this historical figure.”

The show contains recorded music, live drumming, Chinese opera, acrobatics and dancing. Nearly 50 Chinese dancers flew in to perform along with some Colorado artists.

Colorado Ballet dancer Josh Allenback plays Yang Ming, a peasant who fights in an uprising against the Emperor. Whereas classical ballet is formal and upright, he said this role required him to learn to move in a casual way.

“At first it’s nerve-racking,” Allenback said. “I’m pretty sure there might be a few things that get lost in translation. That’s the biggest problem for me.”

Denver Show Part Of China’s Worldwide Cultural Push

Creator Dennis Law says the Chinese government is involved in “Terracotta Warriors 3D.” But it’s not clear to what extent.

CPR repeatedly attempted to contact Chinese officials via the show's producer and instead received a statement. The statement says that Law's company signed an agreement to "represent China government related entities" and is partnered with the Lan Zhou New Area (Gansu Province) and China Ultimate Cultural Arts Development Company. The statement is unattributed.

However, Law said the show does not have a political agenda.

“I’m not pro-America as far as art is concerned, I’m not pro-Chinese,” he said. “But I can help the Chinese authorities realize what aspect of Chinese art and culture that Americans will come to see.”

Dennis Law does see his latest production as fitting in with China’s worldwide cultural push. He said he hopes to one day take “Terracotta Warriors 3D” back to China as an example of how the country can expand its global reach.

Clayton Dube, who directs the University of Southern California’s U.S.-China Institute, says that cultural push accelerated about 10 years ago, but still has room to grow.

“China has the capacity to invest much more heavily in developing its cultural industries,” Dube said. “The government in Beijing is frankly quite jealous of the fact that the U.S. has this well-developed commercial apparatus through the success of Hollywood and the success of the music industry in attracting viewers and listeners all over the world.”