(Editor’s note: The interview with Panda! Director An Zhao was conducted with the assistance of a translator.)
The director of the Chinese theater production of Panda! is banking on Las Vegas audiences’ boredom of Cirque du Soleil shows and a desire to experience Chinese culture to draw them to the Palazzo Theatre starting Dec. 16.
“I respect Cirque du Soleil a lot, however, why (do) people want to use that as a standard to weigh the rest of the (shows) when it comes to performance levels,” Panda! Director An Zhao said. “Art should be coming from all different aspects and Las Vegas is filled with the shows created by Cirque du Soleil. Don’t you think it gets boring? It’s all the same thing.”
Zhao created the Chinese folk art production with the financial backing of Hui Wang, who invested tens of millions of dollars in the show, various sources said. Zhao said that because of Wang’s long-standing relationship with the Sands Corp. in China, he used his influence to secure a theater at the Palazzo on the Las Vegas Strip.
Sands Corp., which owns the Venetian and Palazzo in Las Vegas, also operates the Sands Macao in Macau, which along with Hong Kong is one of two Special Adminstrative Regions of the People’s Republic of China.
“We all know the influence that China has, especially after the 2008 Beijing Olympics,” Zhao said. “A lot of people before, they didn’t know much about China. Now they know. They are all excited and they all love the culture.”
Zhao, who hails from Beijing and has worked on Chinese TV productions that he said netted one billion viewers, said he and Wang have been best friends for 30 years and have worked together on shows in China. Wang produced many movies and dramas in China and hosted the country’s largest art competition, Zhao said.
“The Chinese government literally controls everything,” Zhao said. “To be at a spot to direct a show that every single person in China will be watching, to earn that status, words cannot explain how much effort you need to put up to earn that show.”
When Panda! was first conceived in 2011, the Chinese government provided the stage, but Zhao said that as director, creative control over the show was his own.
“(Audiences) will be seeing something they have never seen in Las Vegas,” Zhao said. “Chinese folk art, all the talents that we bring in, they are the top of the top from the Chinese institute. For example, the war champions (act) – we brought them over just for that.”
The show tells the story of panda LongLong, whose bride, Princess Peacock, is stolen from him on their wedding day by the Demon Vulture and his minions. The show follows LongLong as he builds strength of character to become a hero and save his bride.
“(The audience) will feel that this is how a true hero should be,” Zhao said of Panda! “That’s how people should be when dealing with other people. You’ve got to feel sincerity, have to show your good heart and show that you can be humble.”
The show features 47 performers, including acrobatic artists from the China National Acrobatic Troupe, Kung Fu masters from the Shaolin Temple on Mount Song, dancers who perform in a variety of Chinese styles including Ta Ge, experts in Bian Lian (“face changing”), a performance art that involves the swift changing of a dancer’s masks, panda-costumed acrobats and many more.
A series of large-scale LED screens allow the show to transform the stage into multiple locations from a bamboo forest to an underwater world to a cave of demons.
“There’s no barrier when it comes to art,” Zhao said. “True art doesn’t matter where you come from, who you are. You will all like it. There’s no language barrier when it comes to art.”
Panda! opens Dec. 16 at the Palazzo Theatre in the Palazzo. Tickets start at $48.
Preview of the show
A quick look at scenes from Panda! appearing in the Palazzo Theater.
A sample of artists
A sample of performers from Panda! in a quick demonstration at the Sands Showroom.