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:
http://www.tabblo.com/studio/stories/view/205147/

(2) About a taiwanese master and its company in France:
http://www.hexagramm.fr/petitmiroir/anglais/histoire/maitre_uk.php
(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.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zq4fVPPvhD8
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WfuyqjD1v20

ADDITION:

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:


2 comments:

  1. Beijing opera studentApril 18, 2007 at 2:54 PM

    Actually, if you knew more about the development of the performing arts in China, you would know that it is a widely accepted theory that Beijing opera was actually created when actors began to imitate puppets.

    So, the puppet show you saw was not a case of puppets pretending to be Beijing opera artists ("badly" as you seemed to imply), but good old fashioned TRADITIONAL puppetry, (not "modern" as you had assumed) which spawned the creation of performances played by human beings, which eventually came to be known as Beijing opera (or, rather, Chinese operas, of which there are many different regional variations).

    One should be careful of imposing cultural and academic assumptions in one's analysis without due consideration.

    ReplyDelete
  2. First of all I have to say thanks because of your comment and then reply to them.


    You say: “Actually, if you knew more about the development of the performing arts in China, you would know that it is a widely accepted theory that Beijing opera was actually created when actors began to imitate puppets.”

    Reply: It is true you say about the origin of Chinese Opera. And because of that I’m trying to find that kind of Puppet theatre that keeps on it those origins.

    You say: “you would know that it is a widely accepted theory that Beijing opera was actually created when actors began to imitate puppets.”

    Reply: It’s true about the origin of Chinese theatre, I can’t say much about it, you must know more about it. But It’s absolutely not true that Beijing Opera was born imitating Puppets, as you should know Beijing Opera is the final evolution of many others different kind of Chinese Operas, with men playing on the stage, not Puppets, it could be Puppets among those influences, but not the only one, as a origin. And I’m talking about the Beijing Opera widely performed, since the beginning of 20th century. Anyway, this is not the case; even if that you say is true (I'm not a scholar of course), I can't beleive this company is one of them working with those kind of sources.

    You say: “So, the puppet show you saw was not a case of puppets pretending to be Beijing opera artists ("badly" as you seemed to imply), but good old fashioned TRADITIONAL puppetry, (not "modern" as you had assumed) which spawned the creation of performances played by human beings, which eventually came to be known as Beijing opera (or, rather, Chinese operas, of which there are many different regional variations).”

    Reply: I have no idea if you saw this company and this performance, but you had to be there. I mean, I believe it might exists other companies with those attributes you talk about, and I want to find it, really. I want to see the "sources" on them.
    About this Puppet company in this specific performance, they showed a very poor technique and a very bad put on stage (I made the comparison with Bunraku and Thai Puppets). The word "imitating" I accept can show a lot of ignorance about my knowledge over their technique (but I'm a spectator looking for good theater!)
    But I can't change my point of view: That what I saw was not “traditional” at all (or the word “traditional” got another meaning) and of course it was theatrically not good. I called “modern” because they used voice and music recording, put at the first part some players dressed, one as an old man talking about the play to the chidren, and others as girls-monkeys dancing with electronic-like-traditional music. That never happens with traditional puppets in Japan, Thailand or Bali.
    That I saw was a simple performance which was traying to get money using a pretext (Chinese New Year), and nothing else, maybe, using “traditional” ways to handle puppets, and of course the play itself.

    I didn’t talk about the whole Chinese Puppet Theater (I’ve only seen one company!). But I got my doubts about the evolution of Puppetery in mainland China and I’ll keep those doubts till the moment I see a high level of that kind of theater.
    I invite you to tell me where I can find one Chinese Puppet Company that have gotten a good traditional technique and a respectful stage to do it. I will thank for it.

    Gustavo Thomas

    ReplyDelete

If you are interested in using any text, image or video from this Blog, please contact the author writing your e-mail and information in comments. (comments are private)
Gustavo Thomas. Get yours at bighugelabs.com