From the scholarly halls of Pomona College to center stage at Radio City Music Hall, Leeshai Lemish has been around. At 30 years old, he has done what most people couldn’t—or wouldn’t dare—do their entire lives.
Audience members of Divine Performing Arts in renowned venues might have pondered, “Okay, who is this white guy emceeing the show? And now he’s singing a Sichuan local folk love song called “Kanding,” in fluent Chinese, to the female emcee on stage?” Meet Leeshai Lemish.
Bright and passionate, Lemish tends to dive headfirst into all of his endeavors, which have lead him on a path that’s included being in the Israeli Army, playing amateur baseball, falling in love with traditional Chinese culture, and standing up for human rights in China.
Lemish is an American Israeli who, after spending his later childhood and adolescent years in Israel, moved to the United States to pursue higher education along with his soon-to-be wife, Sarah.
He graduated with straight “As,” Magna Cum Laude, from Pomona College, one of the Claremont Colleges, in 2005. Sarah was valedictorian. Lemish’s drive to achieve is reflected by his numerous accolades. Upon graduation, he was given the award for the best Asian studies thesis; his research led him to Taiwan, Cambodia, and Laos, where he interviewed Chinese refugees who had suffered religious persecution—not a light undertaking for an undergraduate paper. In addition, that year the Chinese-American Scholars Association decided it would be its first year to give its award to a non-Chinese, and Lemish was the honoree.
Lemish is currently preparing for Divine Performing Arts 2009 World Tour As the performance dates approach, The Epoch Times will take a look at the various facets of this production that make it the most highly acclaimed Chinese show in the world. He spends five months out of the year traveling in and outside the United States with Divine Performing Arts dancers as they present the “Chinese New Year Spectacular.”
Lemish answers questions by The Epoch Times:
Epoch Times (ET): How long have you been an emcee for the Spectacular?
Leeshai Lemish (Lemish): This is going into my fourth year with the “Chinese New Year Spectacular,” and my third year specifically with Divine Performing Arts (DPA). My first show was in May 2005 for the Dragon Boat Festival at Cal State LA (California State University, Los Angeles), then the show in Radio City Music Hall in Jan. 2006. In Dec. 2006 I became a full-time emcee for DPA.
ET: How has the production grown since you started?
Lemish: The production has maintained the same spirit that it had early on, but it’s raised itself to a world class show that’s carved itself a unique place in the world of art and entertainment. The focus of the show has evolved to classical Chinese dance and restoring Chinese traditions; the show has matured with DPA. In the first couple shows during 2005 and 2006, we had different groups coming in—local artists, a brass quartet, and a mixture of different things. Since late 2006, however, with the establishment of DPA, it’s been more focused. It’s improved and it’s getting increasingly impressive. The mission of the show is clear, and it’s untainted by what’s happened in China over the past 60 years.
ET: What’s the hardest thing about touring?
Lemish: Besides having to be away from my wife while on tour, I actually consider not touring harder than touring. I’m an emcee. There’s lots of traveling I get to do. Emceeing the show, I get to be able to see the show and be around the artists who are tops in their field and it’s a great environment to be in. I would say the hardest thing is keeping up with the other performers.
The dancers, singers, and orchestra are never satisfied with the level they’re at; always putting heart and soul into it, and looking for new ways to excel and reaching a mental state of full commitment to the moment and audience on stage. The energy of the show and the feedback from the audience has made it such a great environment to be in. When away, I miss being on tour. It’s hard to be balanced [being on and off tour]. Off tour, I spend time researching and writing about human rights.
ET: How do crowd responses differ in different cities and countries?
Lemish: Audiences do react differently from place to place. Different cultures have different habits of theater-going. Boston, for example, has an educated audience that knows more about the historical context in which some of the performances are based. Then we go to places like Huntsville, Florida, or elsewhere where the audiences don’t know much about traditional Chinese culture. They might relate to the show in regard to the performances’ underlying themes of virtue, compassion, justice, and bravery. All can relate to the show on a human level.
In places like Japan and Taiwan, the audiences are more conservative and don’t clap even during the most impressive or poignant part of performances. It’s more polite in their culture to stay quiet until the end of a performance. We would be behind the curtain wondering, “What do they think about that performance?!” Then we would find out at the intermission or after the show how many audience members were moved to tears they were so touched during the show.
ET: Do you have any touching stories to share?
Lemish: One particularly touching response took place throughout Europe last year. One of our performances called “The Power of Awareness” evoked a strong response. It is about a Falun Gong practitioner and her daughter who are persecuted in China because of their belief and how ordinary Chinese citizens in their community bravely defended them and drove off the police, who represent the Chinese Communist Party. After the performance, the audience continued clapping even after the other emcee and I walked on stage to introduce the next performance. So we ended up adding a special curtain call for that performance. This became a sort of phenomenon throughout Europe. The crowd responded similarly in Sweden, Prague, Slovakia, and Italy, and other countries. So we added curtain calls for that specific performance. The underlying themes of justice and integrity in this performance are universal, so I think that’s why people were touched by it.
It’s also common to see people in the audience moved to tears. It’s a sense of finding something very precious. We have people who run up to the stage after the performance to talk with the performers and express their appreciation.
ET: What is your favorite performance and why?
Lemish: It’s hard to say. I like them all, to be honest. I like the balance we have – the softness and elegance of female dances, and the stronger male dances with “Chopstick Zest” and drums.
ET: What’s unique about The Spectacular?
Lemish: It’s unique in many ways. If you’re a Chinese who’s really familiar with Chinese classical dance, art, and music, then it’s unique because it’s authentic classical Chinese art, which is rare to see nowadays.
Another way it’s unique is how it’s not tainted by the influence of the regime that has ruled China over the last few decades. You see this sour influence in movies like “Hero,” where on the surface it looks very Chinese and colorful -- but that’s just the surface. You don’t really have the spirit of it. This show has maintained the aesthetics of traditional Chinese culture, but it also has the inner spirit. It includes classic Chinese themes such as man’s relationship with nature and with other humans, man’s spirituality and constant challenge to maintain a principled, moral life.
If you go to a ballet and see Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, or others, many classics in the West have strong romantic elements to them and are about the relationship between man and woman. If you look at traditional Chinese culture, the content extends beyond romantic love to contemplating deeper realms. It’s about what we are doing here, what are the laws of nature, and how does one find one’s true self. In this way, it’s also inspired by Buddhism and Taoism. That’s a big difference between our show and others.
Then you have another difference which is how our show blends Eastern and Western music. We have an interesting blend of East and West – the Pipa (pear-shaped, stringed instrument), Dizi (bamboo flute), Chinese Percussion, and Erhu (Chinese violin) along with classical Western instruments.
Divine Performing Arts 2008 World Tour will perform in over 80 cities across four continents.
For more information, go to www.divineperformingarts.com