Monday, April 30, 2007

Beijing Opera: A moment with the Monkey King.

Though I'm planning one special post over Huguang Guildhall, I'd like (with my photographs and video), you enjoy a little bit of this character before talking about the theatre building where he is performing.

There is no much to say about it: The Monkey King is a very popular character in China and omnipresent in all its literature since 16th century. Chinese Opera got dozens of pieces where he is the hero, showing magic skills, acrobatics, pantomime, singing and doing any naughtiness you can imagine. Watching him on stage is a truly enjoyment.

Huguang Guildhall is a beautiful theatre built around 1812 and rebuilt many times. There is a Beijing Opera Museum inside and some art craft shops which sale only articles about Beijing Opera (Masks, Puppets, T-shirts, pictures, etc.). It is one of four or five small not in court-theatre working today. Most of their work are addressed to foreign tourism; it seems common Chinese people don't like anymore this kind of theatre, at least in Beijing. There are one big state managed theater, Chang'an, where, they said, work the best actors and Chinese opera companies of our days.

This was one of my several visits to Huguang Guildhall looking, as spectator, for a basic instruction of Beijing Opera. This Guildhall puts on stage only parts of famous and spectacular Beijing operas, never an entire one (usually in two parts with 10 minutes of intermission)and they change of operas every day of the week; so it was easy for me to stay there during one hour or one and a half maximum and coming back every week; without an understanding of it and a bad Chinese comprehension, believe me, it is necessary if you want to enjoy it. After that I could face the Chang'an Theatre and its many large-scale operas.

The part of the Monkey King opera I saw that night lasted for approximately 40 minutes but this is only a 5-minute "solo". I video recorded it one of the last days of October, 2005. We don't see an acrobatic Monkey King but more juggler, playing in a martial art style with this characteristic warrior lance; you will notice, I think, those nice vocal tone and rhythm changes inside his speech. I don't know his name but I recognize him from a few other occasions and I really like his work; maybe without a very fine technique, I have seen him make some mistakes and retake his work very quickly and without big problem, he is very funny and I feel he is very able to stay in contact with those terribly ignorant spectators he has every evening.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

China: Court theatres in the Qing Dynasty. (Part I) The Grand Stage in the Summer Palace in Beijing.

In October 2005, walking as a simple turist through the huge complex of the Summer Palace in Beijing, among its fantastic imperial buildings, I found one of the most beautiful chinese structures I’ve ever seen, the Grand Stage or Daxi lou.

I’d rather more than talk about my experience watching it, to share the information I found about it. At the end (I know it) my experience is felt with my photographs and videos.

This is the first ocassion I made use of scanned photographs besides those of my own, but it worths.

Court Theaters in the Qing Dynasty.

In the period of Emperor Kangxi, an administrative structure called the “Southern Repository” was set up to administer court theatrical performances and training, in order to serve various royal celebrations and festivals. In 1827, the Southern Repository was hanged to the Shengping Office, In the palace and royal gardens, stages were built especially for performances. All these stages boasted elegant and exquisite architectural styles. (1)

Stage complex at Tangle Garden in Old Summer Garden.

This first theatrical complex was a three-storey stage and was located at Tangle Garden in Yuanming Yuan (Old Summer Garden), but was destroyed by fire. (2)

The Southern Repository Stage (3)

The Southern Repository Stage was built in the 18th century and used for rehearsals. There was an entrance and an exit at the back of the stage. The entrance resembled the gate of a temple which symbolized a general going out of the city for battle and a minister coming back to court through the temple gate. (4)

Stage at the Imperial Mountain Estate in Chengde

This three-storey stage was located in the Fushou Garden at the Imperial Mountain Estate, but was destroyed by fire. (5)

Deheyuan Theater in the Summer palace. The Grand Stage. (6)

Deheyuan Theater in the Summer Palace is located in Deheyuan (the Garden of Virtue and Harmony) of the Summer Palace. It was the largest theater in Qing Dynasty and it is also the best’preserved and largest-scale palace theater of ancient times in China.

Deheyuan Theater, also know as the “cradle of Beijing Opera”, was originaly built in 1891 and completed in 1895 during the reign of Emperor Qianlong. It cost 700,000 taels of silver. It is a complex structure comprising a three storey building for performances and two-storey make-up building. It is a theater where Emperor Guangxu and Empress Dowager Cixi watched dramas. The Empress, a lover of opera, would on occasions dress as a member of the troupe, her interest in Beijing Opera promoted the development of Beijing Opera to some extent.

The Grand stage (Daxi lou) is 21 meters in height and 17 meters wide. It consists of three storey, each having its own entrance and exit. The top storey is called Futai, the middle Lutai and the bottom Shoutai, where differents operas and plays could be peformed at the same time (7).

The theater was designed to expand acoustic resonance and to facilitate performance of immortals and ghost dramas. The small building on The Shoutai was were the band accompanied. There were also performance props such as seven “suspending well” on the ceiling of Shoutai, one “water well” and fice ponds, spinning board, a windlass and a high-pressure water machine which made it possible to enact scenes of gods coming down to earth, apparitions fleeing underground and water spewing forth. The “immortals” could descend from above and “ghost” turn up from under the ground.

Distinguished Beijing Opera actors of the Qing Dynasty, like Yang Xiaolou (8) and Tan Xinpei (9), performed here for the Empress Dowager.

This Gran Stage (Daxi lou) inside the Summer Palace, the Free Tones Pavillion (Chang Yin Ge) inside the Forbidden City (also called "Pavillion of Cheerful Melodies"), and the Clear Voice pavillion in Chengde Summer resort, Hebei Province, were renowned as the three great stages during the Qing Dynasty (10). The Summer palace Grand Stage is the largest of all them.

(1) Page 192. “Pictorial Handbook of the History of Chinese Drama”. Institute of Chinese Drama, China Academy of Arts. People’s Music Publishing House. Beijing, 2003
(2) Page 193. “Pictorial Handbook of the History of Chinese Drama”. Institute of Chinese Drama, China Academy of Arts. People’s Music Publishing House. Beijing, 2003
(3) I couldn’t find where this place is exactly located, Summer Palace or Forbidden City.
(4) Page 193. “Pictorial Handbook of the History of Chinese Drama”. Institute of Chinese Drama, China Academy of Arts. People’s Music Publishing House. Beijing, 2003
(5) Page 193. “Pictorial Handbook of the History of Chinese Drama”. Institute of Chinese Drama, China Academy of Arts. People’s Music Publishing House. Beijing, 2003. Of course this can't be the theatre we can see today in Chengde, inside the Lhasa Palace replica, even do, I have my doubts, it could have been rebuilt.
(6) Most of the information about The grand Stage in the Summer Palace come from the sight itself (Information sight); Page 194 of “Pictorial Handbook of the History of Chinese Drama”(Institute of Chinese Drama, China Academy of Arts. People’s Music Publishing House. Beijing, 2003); and Page 66-71 of “Classical dramas and Theaters in Beijing” (Beijing 2005)
(7) “Fortune”, “Salary” and “Longevity” stages.

(8) Yang Xiaolou (left in the picture) (1878-1938) came from an actor’s family and carried on his father’s excellence in the wusheng (warrior) role. Coached by his adopted father Tan Xinpei, yang was called the “Master of Wusheng”. (“Pictorial Handbook of the History of Chinese Drama”… )

(9) Native of Hubei, Tan Xinpei (1847-1917) came from an actor’s family and was first apprenticed to Cheng Changgeng. It was specialized in the laosheng (old soldier) role and is considered “the king of theatre”. His famous performances were done in two important operas: Dingjun Mountain (Dingjun shan) and Yangping Pass (Yangping Guan). He standardized the use of Hubei accent and zhongzhou intonations to form his own singing style. He created the first school for Beijing Opera, the Tan School. He and Wang Yaoqing were innovators and their innovations had vast effects on the development of Chinese drama. (“Pictorial Handbook of the History of Chinese Drama”…; “L’Opéra de Pékin. Quintessence de la culture chinoise.” By Yu Bian. Editions en Langues Étrangères. Beijing, 2005) )

It is possible to visit today this three-storey stage inside an astonishing Lhasa Palace replica.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

“Covarrubias in Bali” A book about a Mexican and his love for Bali’s Performing Arts.

I was amazed by this book the moment I saw it on the book-shelves at one of Bookazine’s branches in Singapore in October 2006. For some stupid reason I didn’t buy it, so every time I mentioned or recalled it, I regretted not buying it. Perhaps that wasn’t too bad, since that gave me time to learn more about Miguel Covarrubias and his work.

It was that same year, in December, that looking for English books in another of Bookazine’s branches, this time in Bangkok, Thailand, that I had the chance to see it again. Although “Covarrubias in Bali” might not be the highest quality art book in the market, specially these days when we see an improvement in the quality of art books, for any Mexican (like me) it can represent something important, and for a Mexican my age even more so, and I’ll explain why.

Most of Mexican elementary education books from the 70s were full of illustrations by Covarrubias’ hands, moreover, for many elementary students there were the well known “monografías” that everyone would buy at any stationary. Many of these “monografías” were made with Covarrubias’ illustrations: maps of the world with colourful drawings of traditions and costumes, clothing, important sights of every country, all of them done with beautiful colors and with a simplicity I could call innocent (made, after all, by a caricaturist), innocence that showed a general view of the culture, innocence that taught.

Then, when I saw this book, I didn’t see Covarrubias, I saw my childhood and a big part of my education on World Geography. I was drawn to it because of the time that had passed, because of the memories. I loved that book.

After the surprise of the first encounter I became aware of what I had in my hands, “Covarrubias in Bali”… That was the first opportunity in my life to understand more deeply the work of a man who, under the light of my crude cultural background had been nothing more than an educative illustrator. Since that instant I can see in him a great Mexican artist, a traveler, an scholar, a polyglot, a social anthropologist, and of course the illustrator and, specially for me, a researcher of performing arts.

Covarrubias traveled with his wife, the American dancer Rose Covarrubias, to the island of Bali on two occasions in the 1930s; there, they observed, studied and took notes on every aspect of the island’s performing arts in the island. Bali is a special case, an even unique one, in human history: a small portion of earth possesses such richness of theatrical manifestations such as dances for rituals and entertainment, ritual theater, opera, music, and puppet theater.

The Covarrubias couple worked during those two stays getting practical information for the promotion of Balinese culture around the world, and they succeeded in their time: many editions of sia Magazine, interviews, articles, commercial confection of Bali style clothing, world recognition of its theatrical wealth, etc. Bali arrived to forever stay in the world of the common western man (who Covarrubias always addressed) thanks to this couple and some other artists and researchers who visited this Pacific Island looking for a sanctuary away from the stressing technological and consumerist moment they lived.

The importance of this illustrative and photographic material can’t be measured. Every dance seen by them has a drawing with all the general aspects of the performance, and many others with the main poses, steps, movements; Rose took dozens of photographs of all that, and I hope, somewhere there are even films.

The Covarrubias diary and field notes become a delicacy for our eyes, thanks to the beauty of the lines and strokes, for the interpretation of movements and the specialness of the subjects.

As a Mexican I felt proud for what a compatriot did exploring strange worlds, but as a performer and a man of theater I felt deeply grateful because of the material he left for us; this book is a source he opened almost 80 years ago.

Slideshow of the book(1):

“Covarrubias in Bali”
By Adriana Williams and Ye-Chee Chong
Editions Didier Millet
Singapore 2005

(1) If the site is blocked (I live in China) you can find the video with the URL address on Youtube:
or in my Youtube chanel:

Slideshow with photographs of playwright Antonio González Caballero (1993)

In 1994 Gaceta Publishers (Editorial Gaceta) and Escenología published a book with three González Caballero's plays (1); one year before Edgar Ceballos, the editor, asked me to go with González Caballero and have a photo session with the teacher and get the main photograph for the new book. The photo session was at a small square close to González Caballero's home in Pino Suárez Street, Downtown Mexico. I kept with me the 16 photographs taken that time.

Now, 14 years later, I share in a slideshow those photographs of my teacher and friend.

Slideshow with photographs of González Caballero (2):

(1) See my Blog about González Caballero and his Acting Method:
(2) If you have problem trying to see the video in this page go to my youtube chanel:
or directly to the page in Youtube:

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Beijing’s Modern Puppets Company, a big disappointment.

I’ve been living in Beijing for one and a half years and during all this time I’ve tried to find a traditional big sized puppet performance, but when I asked about where to go and see it the reply I got was to go to the provinces and look for shadow theatre, not big puppets. The Chinese Puppet theatre was born in the South of China, and the place with the major tradition is Fujian Province (1); although I plan to travel to that region, I expected Beijing, as a capital city of a reborn Empire, to support (as part of its cultural plans) a National Puppet Company, or at least to give money for some performances by traditional trouppes. One day I found some big puppets on sale in Panjiayuan’s artcrafts market in Beijing, and another day in the central city of Xi’an I found another kind of big puppets, but never a performance. Should I wait for my Fujian trip or even go to Taiwan, where they say you can find the highest techniques of puppet work (2)? Maybe it’s bad luck, I thought.

It was at the beginning of this year, 2007, with the celebration of the Chinese New Year, that one Puppet Company from Beijing decided to perform one traditional piece about the Monkey King story, making use of that kind of puppets I wanted to see. The advertisements said it was a rare opportunity to be a spectator for this kind of theatre. I was very excited, of course.

Finding the theater was easy, the taxi driver knew very well where the theatre was located; it seemed to be a venue for Beijing’s children he said. Like a bad copy of a Western medieval castle, the theatre facade was not the best introduction to the spectacle; trying not to compare that with my experience at the Bunraku National Theatre in Osaka (3) and The Joe Louis Theater in Bangkok (4), I went to the pink and orange colored building and took my seat.

It was a disappointment. What I saw was a ‘modern’ attempt to imitate traditional Chinese Opera with medium sized puppets and, worst of all, a very poor technique. Yes, it sounds strange, Chinese traditional artists are known for their high technical level. Well, not here. Imitation is not creation. Children entertainment is not an Art. I have to recognize that the “puppets” were nice and attractive like many puppets are, and it was funny to see their movements, specially since I know the movements that belong to the real Beijing Opera, but nothing there was no amazing technique or work like in Japan’s Bunraku or like at the Joe Louis Theater in Bangkok.

The video tells everything, not just my words(see new addition); I hope to finish soon the editing of the visual material I have about Bunraku and Thai Puppets and to present a good point of view and of comparison between those theatres.

We do know this: Mainland China and India are the sources of Performing Arts in Asia, and China without doubt is the source of the Asiatic Puppet Theatre, but I’m sure that, now, it is companies from Japan, Indonesia and Thailand that perform with the highest technique in the world, and not mainland China anymore. Has China lost the sources of its tradition and all it has left is its Shadow Theatre in the South? After my trip to Fujian I will answer this question.

(1) About one Fujian Puppet performance:

(2) About a taiwanese master and its company in France:
(3) I visited the Bunraku National Theatre in Osaka in July 2006.
(4) I visited the Joe Louis Theatre in Bangkok in December 2006.
(5) Link to my videos in Youtube recorded in Wuzhen village (close Shanghai) showing one Chinese Shadow theatre performance.


After one comment about the way to say my judgment over this performance, I decided to put the raw video and photographs I took that ocassion. It shows, in my point of view, in a claire look what I was talking about.

Non edited video:

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Eisenstein film about Mei Lanfang Art.

They say when in 1935 Mei Lanfang performed in the former USSR he changed the theatrical point of view of the most important creators of that land. Einsenstein, among those creators amazed by this Chinese Star and crazy about excentric moments and people in history, decided to take advantage of Mei Lanfang visit and asked him for a special session of filming on March 29th, 1935; the result was 5 minutes of film Mei Lanfang performing his Beijing Opera new style; although the film projected by Einsentein never was finished, it is an invaluable visual material. (1)

I found a short part of this film and I love to share it (2).

(1) George Banu wrote his version of that visit: "Eisenstein qui le rencontre dès le 12 mars lui propose de le filmer. Et le 29 mars, juste à la fin des représentations, une longue séance de tournage aura lieu, mais sans que le film projeté soit réalisé. Par ailleurs Eisenstein écrit la fameuse étude A l’enchanteur du jardin des poiriers, qu’il va reprendre trois fois dans la période 1935-38, et il offre à Mei son article, paru en anglais, The Principle of Film Form, avec une dédicace lourde de significations à l’heure du « réalisme socialiste » : « A M. Mei Lanfang, le plus grand maître de la forme, mon article essentiel sur la question »" (Mei Lanfang : procès et utopie de la scène occidentale, by Georges Banu)
(2) Film extracted from a Chinese documentary.

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