Community February 18, 2015

Los Altos Hills’ Foothill College Lead Chinese New Year’s Parade

Like red peonies blooming in fast motion, dancers in colorful garb glide across the floor into formation. The loud percussion of the Chinese pipa and erhu instruments contrasts with the soft landings of dancers’ ballet and jazz techniques.

Members of the Foothill Repertory Dance Company are scheduled to take their fancy footwork from their practice studio in Los Altos Hills to the streets of San Francisco March 7 as the opening act at the Southwest Airlines Chinese New Year Parade.

When the Chinese Chamber of Commerce approached company choreographer Bubba Gong, longtime director of dance at Foothill College, to produce an “East Side Story” performance to open the parade, he was excited about the challenge, but also a bit surprised. Although Gong is Chinese-American, his eclectic choreography style reflects his southern roots in Mississippi as much as his Far Eastern heritage.

Organizers embraced the artistic potential of Gong’s unique perspective, setting him on a journey to produce a contemporary show for an audience of 3 million TV viewers and live spectators.

The goal for Gong and his group of 40 dancers is to celebrate the Year of the Sheep in a reverent way that honors the parade’s 165-year history.

When “East Side Story” debuts next month, audiences will discover a dance that speaks multiple languages – hip-hop, ballet, jazz, Peking Opera and even American Sign Language.

Gong said he wants his fresh approach to reach new generations, who may be unaware of the history of the Chinese-Americans who founded the parade in an effort to preserve their culture while working on the railroads and in the goldmines of California in the 19th century.

“I hope the opening of ‘East Side Story’ captures the spirit and energy of America and the history of China and inspires greater understanding as we bridge two cultures, dancing in one world, one beat,” Gong said.

New year, new dance

Similar to the iconic dance scenes from “West Side Story” – the Jerome Robbins-choreographed Broadway musical that serves as inspiration for the parade’s opening act – Gong’s choreography aims to exude explosive energy and intrigue. But unlike the original, the “East Side Story” dance will have a happy ending.

“Instead of mayhem and destruction, let’s put a twist on this dance,” said Gong of how the sheep and wolves that feature in his dance experience harmony, not death, as the protagonists of “West Side Story” did. “It’s about how we can build bridges and usher in the new Year of the Sheep with harmony and compassion, peace and good fortune.”

To bring “East Side Story” to life, dancers will perform in the style of theater-in-the-round – a difficult technique for dancers but more satisfying to the audience, which can enjoy the performance from all angles.

“Without having a three-hour Broadway show to delineate Jets and Sharks, we had to go with American theatrical invention,” added Gong.

The dancers who portray wolves will wear hoodies over a black base, with sheep in red dresses and hip-hop dancers clad in white. Several key characters in the performance will wear costumes custom-designed in China.

Gong does not want the essence of the dance to fade from the spotlight or be overshadowed by the parade’s fireworks and confetti, so he choreographed a number that fluidly fills the two-hour route. The Foothill Repertory Dance Company will entertain the crowd with short excerpts of Samba, Gangnam Style and other forms of dance when they’re not performing “East Side Story.”

After the fanfare of the parade ends, Gong said he plans to enjoy a bowl of southern beans alongside fish for good luck – the way he’s celebrated the Chinese New Year since childhood.

For more information on the Southwest Airlines Chinese New Year Parade, visit chineseparade.com.