Through her bestselling 1931 novel “The Good Earth,” Pearl S. Buck (1892-1973) illuminated for Western readers the beauty, despair, and rich complexity of life in China. The daughter of American missionaries, she grew up in China constantly straddling the influences of East and West, Christianity and Confucianism. She became the first woman to win both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature for her vivid storytelling and cultural insight, developing into a celebrated activist and humanitarian as well as an author and journalist.
Now Buck is also the inspiration for a Broadway-style dance-theater spectacle coming to Boston’s Huntington Avenue Theatre for a one-night-only presentation Jan. 11. Directed and choreographed by Daniel Ezralow, “Pearl Eternity” loosely charts Buck’s extraordinary life — born in West Virginia, spending her formative years in China, later graduating from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Virginia, earning a master’s degree from Cornell University, then returning once more to China, until 1934.
To depict Buck’s cross-cultural journey, “Pearl Eternity” features 20 dancers, as well as an array of special effects and multimedia elements. Video projections on flying panels evoke everything from floating calligraphy to farmlands of China. A “river” meanders across the stage, metaphorically suggesting both a geographic and personal divide. It’s an ambitious collaborative production with a lot of moving parts, says Ezralow, who spent six months researching Buck’s life, collaborating with Jun Miyake (composer of the work’s original score), and working on visual ideas and narrative for the production. An athletically gifted dancer in his youth (MOMIX, Pilobolus, Lar Lubovich, Paul Taylor), the 63-year-old Ezralow has emerged over the past two decades as an award-winning, boundary-busting talent not just in dance, but also in film, theater, opera, television, music, and fashion. His long list of credits includes Cirque du Soleil, Broadway’s “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” and the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.
The Globe caught up with the Los Angeles-based Ezralow by phone in Rome, where he was in the midst of a new project for the Sanremo Music Festival.
Q. Can you tell me a little about the inspiration and genesis of the show?
A. It was initially brought to me by Angela Tang of Legend River Entertainment, and she came with the idea of creating something based on the life of Pearl Buck that was both enjoyable entertainment and artistic, informative, and, in a way, culturally important. It was a Chinese producer asking a Western choreographer/director to create an evening based on an extraordinary person who was able to bridge the divide between Eastern and Western cultures. I wrote the story with my wife [Arabella], and we went through a lot of material to decide what was really important about her life for people to know. She grew up a little blond girl in China who saw her self as Chinese and crossed between Eastern and Western cultures. She created the first adoption agency in America for all the Asian babies who were created by American soldiers who [abandoned] them. She did amazing things in her lifetime as well as being a writer, and I tried to take the profound moments that viscerally would connect you to the story that we are all one, that we must be able to cross cultures and have relationships.
Q. The show portrays a real duality, a constant play of East and West —how do you reflect that in the direction and movement aesthetic, which seems to range from the flow and weight of Chinese dance to edgy contemporary sequences to the abstractly sculptural?
A. It’s finding the essence of the moment, like when Pearl cannot get a visa to go back into China — they decided she was a communist. I represent it by using [cords] that represent the strings of this ancient Chinese lute and stringing them across the stage like slack lines. Earlier in the show [as a child], she has played on these [lines]. But as an older woman, she can’t get by them. They become a barrier. …The woman who was able to write “The Good Earth” and win the Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes couldn’t during the McCarthy era get an article published — other than a recipe of Asian food.
Q. The show premiered in 2015 as “Pearl: Spring River Flower Moon Light” at Lincoln Center, then toured to Canada and 20 cities in China. Has it changed much since then?
A. It’s very close to the original production in terms of length, storytelling, visual elements, and visceral sense. It’s still an international cast, but now only 20 dancers. It was prohibitive to tour with 34 dancers. Also, the 60-foot river that curved throughout the stage was filled with water, and that became prohibitive to tour. We still have the form of the river, but without the actual water in it.
Q. You mention possible plans for an East Coast tour and another tour of China for the production. Do you think multicultural shows like this are particularly resonant in our current climate?
A. Yes. We seem to be getting more isolated rather than more connected. The only thing I’ve found from traveling all over this world is that we are all one together sharing this planet, one humanity, regardless of culture. [Buck] did this wonderful show with Edward R. Murrow in the ’50s inviting many different people to explain what they believe in. She used the metaphor of a plant covered by a rock that never understands what it can do until the rock is removed. Then it reaches toward the sky, grows into its full potential.
I want this show to be seen. I think that it is more important now than ever before, taking steps toward understanding other cultures, building multicultural bridges.
At Huntington Avenue Theatre, Jan. 11
Tickets $60-$280, 617-933-8600, www.BostonTheatreScene.com
Karen Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Karen Campbell can be reached at email@example.com.