Thursday, July 26, 2007

A Beijing Opera School performance.

The Beijing Opera School opened in 1957 after the proclamation of the Popular Republic of China; before that there were no schools like that, only houses of teaching lead by great masters (almost always former stage stars) who took care of some children’s acting career for many years, sometimes for the actor’s whole life. Since 1957 the education of Beijing Opera performers has been managed by the Chinese government. Students must start at a very early age to take advantage of their malleable bodies and voices, spending many years in the acquisition of several skills.

In 2003, after the publication of the book, “L’École de l’Opera de Pékin” with photographs of Hervé Bruhat, the school started to become well known around the world, especially in Europe. The photographer stayed one season in 2002 living inside the school with those children-students, taking photographs even while they studied, worked or in their daily life. This book is a precious document about the “renaissance” of this kind of Chinese theatre after its practical death during the Cultural Revolution in the 70s.

The school now has different groups giving performances through China and around the world, showing its training and extracts of the most famous Operas.

This year the school celebrates its 55th anniversary with a series of performances in many Chinese cities including, of course, Beijing. For three days at the Chang’An Theatre (the most important venue in China when it comes to Chinese Opera) the company of teenagers and children performed several extracts and “solos”. I went to the theatre on July 16th, 2007; the performance had 8 parts including some song solos without costumes, lasting approximately 2.5 hours.

I recorded lots of material, but I’d rather to share only 4 shorts videos: three parts of one Monkey King story and one of something very strange nowadays in China: a story played by men as feminine characters.

Monkey King Story:

The Opera “闹龙宫” (“making noise inside the Emperor palace”) is full of acrobatic moments and rhythm.

“闹龙宫” videos:

Story with feminine characters played by men.

During the two years I have been seeing Beijing Opera, I had never had the opportunity to observe men playing feminine characters, one of the best known reasons for the success of Chinese Opera. After the birth of the new Republic those roles (Dan roles) were banned and only women could play them. In recent years things have changed and now we can see that kind of acting again, though it is very rare. A Dan role represents a young lady character, showing the ideal of feminity for Chinese ancient culture.

In this play 失子惊疯 (“Madness from losing the son”) the psychological details expressed through gesture are a challenge for any professional performer. Two young men, teenagers I’d say, played in a very interesting manner. I put a link to a CCTV site with a video of a professional performance of the same opera played by women; then you can compare between both videos.

Video of 失子惊疯 played by male students:

Click here to see Link to 失子惊疯 played by women.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Gaudi Exhibition in Beijing, China

A genius of Architecture, Antonio Gaudí, in the exhibition "Cosmos Gaudí. Arquitectura, geometría y diseño" (Cosmos Gaudi. Architecture, geometry and design), at Capital Museum in Beijing, China.

Not Theatre or Performing Arts, I know, but a genius of Art.

This is the first exhibition I've really enjoyed so far in Beijing: short, easy to follow and understand, and of course visually beautiful. That is not easy to find in this country, believe me.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Beijing Opera: Mei Lanfang's hand gestures

Mei Lanfang was known thanks to his quality and his ability to perform with details. In the middle of a strong tradition he knew how to make changes, with details; hand gestures were among those changes.

My personal video edition of Mei Lanfang's hand gestures, from films and books I've found about this subject.

Video of Mei Lanfang Hand Gestures

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Book: "Théâtre et Musique Modernes en Chine"

While living in Lebanon and without knowing I was going to live to China and become a spectator of its Beijing Opera (Peking Opera), I found, at a French Book Fair (1) in Summer 2004, a strange but interesting book published in 1926 by La librairie orientaliste Paul Geuthner: “Théâtre et Musique Modernes en Chine”. Written by the French Cultural Consul of France in Beijing,the book was an effort to depict the great theatrical moment China was living at that moment of its history, specially Chinese Opera.

In China, Mei Lanfang and other great Beijing Opera players were creating, since the end of the 19th century, a Theatrical Revolution, creating new ways to perform, new plays, and preparing the public for a new moment in Performing Arts; Chinese say they brought the acting technique to its highest level.

There were only few visitors back then, many of them tried to stay away from Chinese culture and, of course, their experience with Chinese opera was most of the time a disastrous one, misunderstanding everything they saw and listened. But people like Soulié de Morant, a real lover of Chinese culture, looked for different ways to make Chinese art understandable to western audiences: translations of many operas in text and music, brilliant descriptions of performances and their stars, and of course putting spectators as an important character for the success of this kind of theatre.

Beijing Opera Musicians (1926)

The Book I want to talk about is a jewel, I believe. Aside from having interesting descriptive texts by a real connoisseur of Chinese Performing Arts, many photographs from the beginning of the 20th century show the boiling-point Beijing’s theatrical ambiance was living: theatres, posters, performances, spectators, street players, musicians, their instruments; and we can read (in French, of course) parts of some Beijing Opera scripts. At the end of the book there is a special chapter about Music for Opera and many music scripts translated into western notation for piano (absolutely understandable if we remember that Chinese music and its notation came from different sources that western music).

Every time I see and read this book it’s a new experience and I get continuously surprised with new details of the photographs, descriptions or comments on them. This is, as usual, a very simple way to share it.

(1) Lebanon, which was a French colony, is considered a French speaking country. A big percentage of the population speaks and lives in French. Many of its schools and universities work totally in the French language. So, it is not strange to find a French Book Fair in this Middle Eastern country.
Photographs were scanned by me, and the slideshow video was produced and edited by me too.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre (Taiwan): 水月 (Moon Water)

(This is a translation by Tadeo Berjon from my post in Spanish)

I’m just back from seeing “Moon Water”, a masterpiece by this Taiwanese modern dance group, and my mind’s ready for writing…

For 70 minutes, my spectator’s mind lived a numbing process similar to the meditation process a newbie goes through: I started by experiencing total beauty, a feeling of purification, certain expectation for what was to come; then, a waiting, no more beauty (or beauty simply remains still), there’s repetition (like with breathing, like with mantras), and there’s confusion, distraction, the feeling of wanting to stop the experience, to cut it short, to change to a different mood or state of mind (there is a struggle); then, just before the explosion (which doesn’t come because I remain there, seated, waiting), there is enlightenment, a feeling of freshness where my spectator mind enters a new stage, letting itself go, and I realize my senses have become numb too, that my mind doesn’t struggle anymore (has it been vanquished?), I see (maybe I should say “I contemplate”) and listen without watching or listening, I’m empty and the image I contemplate fills the void. Unarguably, I’ve entered a meditative state that’s broken by the dark ending, by applause.

Did I watch a performance? Definitively. Did I contemplate a spiritual experience. Definitively.

I once heard or read about someone who had experienced “spiritual liberation” by watching his master in some process. Many, many speak about the spiritual experience of watching a taichi master performing forms for hours. The spectator is not a participant and yet the contemplating of the practitioner causes a revealing experience.

Then, I get lost in the experience, I get lost in the narrative.

Is this the metaphysical theatre that Grotowski was supposedly trying to achieve? The metaphysics where the spectator may or may not be present, where he contemplates the creative processes on stage, the transformation, the ritual dismemberment of the actor and, in turn, is also created, transformed, dismembered?

I don’t know, I never saw any of Grotowski’s last performances, I only have second-hand information about them. My experience has taken me to watch other failed, lost, almost worthless experiments. Today, the performance at the Poly Theatre was different. I wasn’t expecting any performance of this kind and, while it was happening, I didn’t recognize it, and when it was over, I wasn’t quite sure of what I had seen.

I saw taichi (the group has been practicing it for years), I saw breathing techniques and a process of movement meditation (meditation has been part of their training), I saw a dancing technique of highest quality (the best modern dance technique and a formidable training, all evident on stage). But my emotions were eliminated, my reasoning was broken… there was only contemplation.

I also saw how the individuality of the dancers became lost, how they merged on stage, how they became movement, fluidity, image: one, five, twenty dancers, they became a moving mass of spiritual beauty (beauty that even got lost, at some point, due to its repetition, its slowness and fluidity). I accept that, afterwards, I found it scary (since I’m an artist too) that I couldn’t recognize any single dancer as the best one, or as the worst one, I couldn’t remember who was who, they became fused arms, torsos, water, light, Bach’s cello suite. And still, I never forget the image of the director (Li Hwai-min), on the contrary, it’s strengthened. We applauded the company, we love them, but we acclaimed the director, we waited for his words.

Is there some deceit here? Is there a group sacrifice in honour of the director’s genius? Is there, once more, a divine seducer-creator who’s capable of erasing others to put his sublime ideas on stage.

There is a peculiar turn to the idea of the performance itself (that it’s not a normal performance, that it doesn’t tell anything, that it’s an “experience”) but, in the end, that tricky turn, in which we so fervently believe at the end of the performance, is it simply proof of the egotistical ability of the director to erase bodies and minds to achieve his artistic goal?

Then, what did I see?

During my liberating catharsis I remember Butoh and Kazuo Ohno in particular, my body trembles with the memory, my emotion flows full of tenderness and compassion, of love, nostalgia, I can’t remember the choreography or even whether he was the choreographer or it was someone else’s piece. The difference, then, is evident. With Kazuo Ohno and Butoh I see only the modern Orient, modern Japan. With Water Moon I see the choreography of Lin Hwai-min, I see China and I see the fluidity of what I can understand as Tao. Differences… could they be comparisons?

“Moon Water” is a wonderful dance piece, which will remain not in my spectator’s memory, but in my body memory, just like a meditation experience. I can’t remember any one particular meditation, but I can remember the general feeling of meditating, a great meditation is everything; I can remember this great piece of dance-theatre as the fundamental experience of all the pieces of its kind.

Can all this be taken as speaking well of a performance? I don’t know. In the slightest. It’s speaking, simply put.

“Moon Water” by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan performed on Saturday July 13th 2007 at Beijing’s (China) Poly Theatre. Some 20 dancers performed on stage under the direction of Lin Hwai-min. The music for the performance was some Bach's cello suites.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Ceremony in Honour of Antonio González Caballero

Antonio González Caballero was my teacher and master, he was also my friend, but he is one of the most important Mexican playwrights and Acting researchers. We must honour him...

Cambodian Children Puppeteers (view from backstage)

This is just one video showing the Cambodian children puppeteers performing at La Noria Restaurant in Siem Reap.

All the information about this performance is in the post of the 6/27/07.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

T'ang Quartet and Theatre Cryptic in Singapore Arts Festival 2007

The National Library of Singapore is one of those enormous cultural complexes the city-nation has: a gigantic 4-storey building, and on the third floor a theatre with a capacity of more than 1000 spectators, The Drama Centre Theatre. This theatre was the place where T’ang quartet, in collaboration with Theatre Cryptic, put on stage “Optical Identity”(1).

T’ang quartet is a very good string quartet from Singapore, young (I don’t believe they are more than 40 years old) but with a solid artistic maturity and a great impulse for stage experimentation.

This spectacle, “Optical Identity”, offered in the Singapore Arts Festival 2007, was a real experiment; it seems it is not unique in T’ang’s trajectory, and that they have had some other experiments with music, technology and visual arts.

Theatre Cryptic is a visual performing company from Scotland that combines stage with music and video, and today it is a group with an international image.

I have to be very clear about what I saw: on the one hand, the music: an exceptional performance of very interesting works; on the other hand, the mis-en-scene: a disastrous experiment even in the use of technology, as well as the way the theatrical direction managed the performance.

There is an equation that makes my appreciation about “Optical Identity” that evening more colorful: T’ang Quartet played that night with such mastery for the simple reason that they have worked hard for many years, learning, practicing, exploring, listening; you can’t expect the same level on stage when that work could have been planned for just some months. It seems to me that the two parts, music and stage, were isolated from each other, and the creative processes were different even though it was the same performance. The big problem, I think, was that they decided the musicians would also be the dancers, the stage workers, the actors, without the same level between their musical performance and their theatrical one.

Some of the works played were memorable to listen, enjoyable and interesting; but not that experiment of sound (music) distortion, the use of the software seemed too basic, even chaotic, without route. A similar impression was caused by the live video (by the Swiss digital artist Jasch) and that computer generated video-image through, very common in performing Arts these days; I feel like having seen a technician without experience, with little talent to improvise and not many skills on stage, no rhythm in the product (video-image), nor capacity to manage visual angles; he knew how to take video and to use the software, but that’s not enough to be on stage, I think; he was not inside that musical performance.

I liked the recorded video showing T’ang quartet playing their instruments, the combinations with their naked bodies and the movements and music, very interesting: that idea of a part of a body playing music, only parts, showing details of their skins, muscles in movement, it was a visual aspect, really beautiful.

(Click here to see part of that video I’m talking about)

Even after those severe comments, the worse part of my comments is about to come: the theatrical performance (quartet T’ang were not only musicians, they were also dancers and actors and prop technicians!) and the stage direction (by Cathie Boyd). Big blocks of metal cut geometrically being used as windows, chairs, walls or nothing, sometimes they were more a problem than a practical solution; then our musician-performers had to move them during the whole performance, but the director considered that moving was simple or something and then proposed or accepted (at the end it’s the same) that they move with some attitude, with some state of… something. They also moved like dancing, then changed into percussionists, tried to keep a silent conversation between instruments and the video camera… Please, tell me, who can do all that (well done I mean) while playing music? I don’t know of anyone yet.

There was no depth nor conscience about the theatrical work. I believe the interpreters and their musical level was so much higher that the theatrical level of the stage director and the video artist.

Experimenting in Performing Arts is always welcome (from my point of view, of course), even with the problems I saw. Music performances in our days are missing something. T’ang quartet have the talent, the strength, the musical level, and they have exploring as an objective, the only thing left is to find the right artistic partners for it.

Working in the Arts in this country is a blessing; artists have a support of their authorities and institutions like I’ve never seen in my country. I saw the work of T’ang quartet, Mark Chan, and those street performers in Orchard Road. Independently of the quality of all of them, it seems to me that being an artist in Singapore is like taking part of a political idea: finding the sources of the new Singaporean cultural face beyond races and religion, Arts as the Identity of Singapore.

This is the information about the T’ang quartet performance I found in the Festival site:

Optical Identity
Theatre Cryptic and T'ang Quartet (UK/Singapore) Music to be seen, not just heard. A spectacle that weds sight and sound, teasing the eye while pleasing the ear! From Singapore and Scotland, a consort of talents join hands for a visual musical journey, entering a sumptuous realm of the global, sensual, virtual and real. The agility and depth of homegrown T'ang Quartet shine through their interpretation of four acclaimed contemporary composers – Kevin Volan (South Africa), Franghiz Ali-Zadeh (Azerbaijan), Rolf Wallin (Norway) and a commission by Joby Talbot (UK). Directed by Cathie Boyd, artistic director of Theatre Cryptic, the stage is sculpturally styled by Singapore’s award-winning furniture designer Jason Ong and couture house BAYLENE. As if in a spell, the stage space and movement shift through music, light, object, fabric and film with interactive technologies played live by Swiss digital artist Jasch. The T’ang Quartet performs in an immersive environment not encountered before. Programme Kevin Volans White Man Sleeps Rolf Wallin Phonotope 1 (Asian Premiere) Franghiz Ali Zadeh Mugam Sayagi Joby Talbot Manual Override (World Premiere) (Duration: 80mins no intermission)

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Noridan. A big smile during the Singapore Arts Festival 2007.

Mi visit to Singapore lasted 6 days and I had planned to attend three events of the Singapore Arts Festival 2007 plus watching the Vesak parade (the celebration of Buddha’s enlightenment).

I knew I’d miss many events because of my short visit and the ticket prices (impossible to afford) and purposefully avoided them, but I made the mistake of forgetting the whole group of street spectacles, all of them free. But Singapore is a very small city, and walking around I found a few events.

So, while I was leaving the Esplanade after Tandun’s concert, at one of the terraces of this enormous cultural complex and among a crowd of curious spectators, my ears caught some music, the music of the Korean group Noridan, a singular company of musicians performers, some of them very young (I mean, children), who were playing musical instruments (my guess is they were made from recycled plastic and metal).

Companies like Noridan exist all over the world and of indisputable quality in their dance or music, but even then, after a mental comparison, Noridan, because of their short age, their timing on the stage, their rhythm and their energy projected towards the spectators, was a very good and big surprise.

The philosophy of the group is as simple as their music: entertainment with joy and energy, and they achieve their goal. Noridan’s members are talented and imaginative, practical, and that can be seen throughout the performance. Noridan doesn’t have the pretentious ideals of La Fura dels Baus or La Guarda, but they work with practical stage machines, they make music and play it, but only trying to make the spectator happy and show their talent (as with the drums); they dance and yell, play and do acrobatics but they don’t pretend to tell a story or even to show off their dramatic skills. Their work is simple and that simplicity enthralls, it is a pleasure to live their fluidity performing, fluidity which gives a breath to our journey.

Noridan (as Tandun), on the other hand, are still imprinted in my spectator memory. In the end I felt like approaching to say hello, to talk with them, to watch their machines and play those strange instruments, and they were glad about it. I felt like looking into their eyes with my best smile and saying “Gracias”.

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