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Forest Hills artist creates Lunar New Year display

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The sun shined through the basement windows on 69th Road as Lee showed piles of neatly folded fabrics in hues of gold, blue, purple and green, chosen for their symbolism but also with an eye to how they would look under the bright lights at Radio City. Likewise, the costume designs fit in with certain dynasties whose philosophy will be conveyed on stage via clothing, hair styles and accessories, Lee said."China has 5,000 years of culture. Dynasties have their own wisdoms, their own cultural values. And because they have different beliefs, the moral values can be seen in the clothes: The clothes reflect the values," she said. "As the dynasties change, the rules change."Yellow or gold-colored fabrics were used between the Tang (618-906) and Ch'ing (1644-1912) dynasties to indicate the wearer's proximity to heaven, she said. Officers might wear reds or oranges, she said."In the Tang Dynasty, people were more open-minded. You can see the styles are very rich, the colors are bright," to show they were confident and happy, she said.Her training in her native China prepared Lee for the actual work of designing the elaborate costumes, starting at times with drawing the patterns to adorn the fabric that will then be printed or dyed to order for NTDTV. But the research to ensure historical and cultural accuracy was far from easy, since much of the information had been blacked out or destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, she said."For so many years, Chinese culture got lost under the Communists," Lee said. Academics, historians and others who could teach the styles and mores of the various dynasties had been persecuted, history books were rewritten and the memory virtually erased. Lee did her research from paintings, statues and museums, she said."In the Cultural Revolution it was forbidden to talk about the heavens, or Buddhism or Taoism," which influenced clothing, Lee said. "Costumers have a rich part of Chinese history."In China, clothing has particular significance and meaning, and the color choices or components of an ensemble reflect the wearer's values."The way you wear something has a specific meaning," she said, describing a two-piece outfit. "For women, a dark blue top shirt shows respect for the heavens; brown on the bottom, respect for the earth."These meanings and the significance of the dances the performers do will be clear to many in the audience, Lee has learned from experience watching past productions."I saw many people in the theater moved to tears because the performers carry this special experience inside," she said. "The performers know the history, know the stories."Because she designs all the costumes, it is also Lee's job to make sure everything works together."We have to make sure the whole performance is in harmony," she said.On the day of the interview, before the show opened, the designs were still so top secret that Lee declined to be photographed in her workroom.The production is scheduled to tour the United States and several other countries, but not China, because of political considerations, Lee said.NTDTV's Chinese New Year Splendor show opened Jan. 30 and runs through Feb. 8 at Radio City Music Hall, 1260 Avenue of the Americas. For more information, visit www.chinesesplendor.com.Reach reporter Alex Christodoulides by e-mail at achristodoulides@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 155.

Updated 6:57 pm, October 10, 2011
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