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May 7, 2018 10:55 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Southampton Cultural Center Spring Performing Arts Festival Celebrates Asian Culture

May 8, 2018 9:25 AM

It’s a traditional dance form that involves a performer who takes the stage donned head to toe in vibrant robes, headpiece and cape. He moves to the notes of live instruments, turning and twisting to the music.

But the expression on this dancer’s face is not his own. Rather, it is a painted one, a mask of bold, dramatic colors with a static expression, and as he twirls and moves, a simple pass of the hand momentarily obstructs his features.

When we see him again, something is different. The color, expression and features of the painted face have suddenly and miraculously transformed into an entirely different mask.

It’s called Biàn Liǎn, or “face changing” and it’s a traditional Chinese art form from the Sichuan Province that dates back more than 300 years to the reign of Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty.

This Saturday, May 12, East End audiences will have an opportunity to see a Biàn Liǎn performance for themselves when the Southampton Cultural Center presents the 2018 Spring Performing Arts Festival.

It’s not often that art and culture from the Far East makes its way to the East End. Suiv Lee, one of the organizers of the festival, explained that though the immediate goal is to introduce local audiences to Asian culture, the bigger focus is on building bridges and communication between people in the United States and Asia.

Ms. Lee, who grew up in China, is a former professor and now works as a commercial real estate specialist with Douglas Elliman Real Estate in Southampton. She, Southampton Cultural Center Executive Director Kirsten Lonnie, and Karen Bomzer, a co-founder of the nonprofit Asian-American Cultural Circle of Unity, an organization that seeks to further U.S.-Asian cultural relationships, came together to organize the festival. Throughout the day on Saturday, Southampton Cultural Center will host art workshops and performances and serve Asians foods.

“We all have the same concept of how we want to utilize art and performance and, through cultural awareness, reduce differences between groups,” explained Ms. Lee last week in a phone interview. “The mission of the Southampton Cultural Center is education. We want to introduce more Asian art and performers here, so locals can understand and welcome Asian people and have better communication with them.”

As a math professor, Ms. Lee saw eager Chinese students coming to the United States to study English and learn about American culture and business practices. But she didn’t find the same reciprocal interest in American students when it came to understanding China.

“We need to educate our children. I was a teacher and the enrollment is largely Chinese. They’re learning everything from us, we need to do the same to keep our position,” Ms. Lee said. “All the Chinese students speak English, but when we want to send our students to China, they can’t speak Chinese.

“We have to think worldwide and educate our students,” she added. “We have to produce international students so they know what it’s all about.”

The idea for the festival came about two years ago when Ms. Lee approached Ms. Lonnie about offering an Asian arts festival at Southampton Cultural Center to celebrate Chinese New Year. Their first festival in February 2017 focused on the cultures of India, Japan and China.

This year, the focus will be on Korea, Japan and China and Ms. Lonnie decided to move the festival to May in order to attract a larger audience. The Asian festival is expected to be an annual spring event at Southampton Cultural Center, and going forward, China will be represented each year along with two other Asian countries.

“The intent is to mix it up and focus on different Asian cultures,” said Ms. Lonnie in a recent phone interview. “I think it’s a tremendous learning opportunity. You don’t get this out here. What was very exciting last year was to see how the kids got pulled into the workshops. The performance was so dynamic and colorful, everything is so different.”

“This year, Suiv has brought in different performers, so I think it will be even more dynamic than last year,” Ms. Lonnie added. “Especially with the Chinese face changer. I think I want a front row seat for that. Usually I sit in the back by the sound board.”

The festival begins Saturday with visual arts workshops from 3 to 5 p.m. in Chinese paper cutting, Indian henna painting, Asian art face painting and Chinese calligraphy and brush painting. The stage performance follows at 5 p.m. and includes Korean and Japanese drum dances, several Chinese performers, an Okinawan traditional dance form, and a Korean scarf dance. But the Biàn Liǎn performance is expected to be a highlight because it is so rarely seen in the United States.

Even growing up in China, it was an art form Ms. Lee only witnessed on television.

“It’s basically like a Chinese opera merged with a traditional folk art form,” Ms. Lee explained. “Within the opera, they develop this technique, like a magic trick, which they blend with the traditional opera music.”

The trick is the instantaneous way in which the performer is able to change facial masks in a fraction of a second without the audience seeing how it’s being done. It’s a compelling art form—part opera, part musical, part folk tale and part magic show—and one that has left even Ms. Lee in awe.

“I only recently saw it live. I said we have to have it for our event,” she said. “I’m an adult and I was like a kid when I saw it.

Like any good magic performance, no one is quite sure how it’s done.

“Nobody knows,” Ms. Lee confirmed. “Even when people watch it in slow motion on YouTube they can’t figure it out. It’s a tradition that performers want to pass on.”

Ms. Lee notes that the performer who will present the Biàn Liǎn dance at the festival on Saturday is now working to train his own young son in the technique, handing down the tradition like storytellers do from one generation to the next. She said the young boy will come with his father to the cultural center on Saturday.

“But he’ll just be in costume,” Ms. Lee laughed. “He doesn’t know how to do it yet.”

Southampton Cultural Center’s 2018 Spring Performing Arts Festival is Saturday, May 12, and is offered in collaboration with the Asian Cultural Alliance and sponsored by the Butterfly United Foundation, a New York City-based Asian organization. Art workshops are from 3 to 5 p.m., followed by performances from 5 to 6 p.m. and a “Taste of Asia” food reception until 7 p.m. featuring cuisine from Saaz Indian Restaurant in Southampton, SSambap Korean BBQ from Stony Brook and the Butterfly United Foundation.

There is no fee for the workshops. Admission to the performance and the reception is $20, or $10 for students. Southampton Cultural Center is located at 25 Pond Lane, Southampton. Visit scc-arts.org or call 631-287-4377.

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