PLAINS - Denver, Cleveland, Atlanta - all understandable stops on an American tour by a Chinese university's performing arts group.

Plains?

Folks here can thank Jean Morrison for their addition to the list, and many did Wednesday after the Student Art Troupe from Southwest University of Political Science and Law wowed a packed house in the Plains High School gymnasium.

Dancers in colorful costumes, masterful young musicians playing odd-looking-to-us instruments and martial arts experts held their mostly student audience in mostly rapt attention for well over an hour.

"It was amazing," said 15-year-old Amelia Marlowe of Plains. "It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see a performance like this."

The 16 Chinese performers - 15 students and one professor from SWUPL - kept the hundreds of kids and dozens of adults engaged - and, eventually, involved.

The dancers performed numbers called "Impression of Tai Chi" and "Pretty Ladies." The folk ensemble: "A Moonlit Night on the Spring River" and "Joyful at Sunrise."

The two groups combined on others: "Boxwood Shoulder Pole" and "Jasmine Flower."

But when martial arts expert Jiang Yun Li asked for a few volunteers to join her on stage to learn some moves, she got at least three dozen who attempted, to great comedic effect, to go through a set of increasingly elaborate motions.

Only moments before, Li - a 48-year-old professor of physical education - had been turning what can best be described as midair (i.e., her hands never touched the floor) cartwheels during "Sword Dance."

And when the crowd was invited to join the dancers on stage during their final number, more than 100 rushed out to flit around, imitating the butterflylike motions of the young Chinese women dancers.

***

SWUPL's Student Art Troupe is performing in American cities with Confucius Institutes, and - last time we checked, anyway - Plains didn't have one.

Missoula, however, opened a Confucius Institute last year at the University of Montana's Mansfield Center, and that was the Chinese group's first stop Tuesday.

After that it would have been on to Denver, were it not for a two-decade-old friendship between Morrison and Zhen Cao, who came to Missoula in 1989 on an exchange program to teach Chinese and remains to this day.

"It was just my second week in Missoula," Cao explained of their 1989 meeting, "and I was on a bike, riding, when I saw a sign for a Christian Science Center."

The Christian Science Monitor is a newspaper name well-known in China, he went on, and so he stopped in to see if he could read a few copies. Morrison was working in the center, and they struck up a quick friendship.

It was also the year of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, and Morrison - ever vigilant, in her role with the Sanders County Arts Council, to offer a wider view of the world to her rural community - enlisted her new acquaintance to come to Plains and discuss it with high school students.

"When you make friends and network, your world opens up," Morrison said.

Cao has returned to Morrison's home in Plains for Thanksgiving every year, bringing with him an array of Chinese people to celebrate the American holiday. When Morrison learned of his involvement in bringing the Student Art Troupe to the United States, she lobbied to schedule a performance in Plains.

"We are special," she told the Montana students - who also came from Charlo, Thompson Falls, Hot Springs and Paradise - Wednesday. "We are the only public school in the United States where they will be performing."

Later, as she prepared a uniquely Montana meal for the Chinese in the Plains High School home economics room - buffalo, elk, deer, antelope, salmon and trout were all on the menu - she talked more about it.

"I think it's very important to expose our students in rural areas to different cultures, other people," she said. "When it comes to the Chinese, you hear a lot of negative talk between governments. It may be that the politicians are fighting, but the people are just like you and I. It's something people must understand, and I'm very sincere about that."

***

Wednesday's audience was introduced to several Chinese instruments: The yang qin (a hammered dulcimer). The gu zheng (a plucked zither). The pipa (think lute with no neck).

Tan Hua performed a solo, a local lullaby from SWUPL's home in Chongqing called "Ants," on one of the most interesting looking, an anorexiclike two-string Chinese fiddle held between the legs and called an erhu.

After giving folks a taste of China, Thursday will be the performers' turn to take in a bit of Montana.

Following a night at Quinn's Hot Springs near Paradise, they're scheduled to visit a ranch south of Hot Springs, the People's Center on the Flathead Indian Reservation and the Bigfork studio of Western artist Nancy Cawdrey.

Then, they'll be off to Denver.

But there'll be no rest in the quest to bring outside culture into town.

On Sunday, Morrison and her arts council cohorts have the Missoula choral ensemble Dolce Canto coming to Plains, for a 3 p.m. performance at the Methodist Church. In less than a week and a half, the Montana Repertory Theatre performs "Leading Ladies" at the Plains gym, at 7 p.m. on Feb. 8. Then it's the turn of the Vigilante Players, who'll be at Quinn's on both Valentine's Day and President's Day.

"Aren't we fortunate?" Morrison asked, and certainly on Wednesday and most likely in the coming weeks, everyone would answer yes.

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at (406) 319-2117 or at vdevlin@missoulian.com.

 

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