Monday, August 13, 2007

Chinese Shadow Puppet Theatre from Sha'anxi.

South Gate Space is a Performance venue in Dashanzi 798, the world famous Avant-gard Art complex in Beijing. It is not a conventional space; small and with little technical features, it’s mainly dedicated to putting on stage spectacles with music and dance groups from remote areas of the country, with only one objective: to preserve the Chinese cultural tradition without caring about their quality or their knowledge about performing arts. This is, from my point of view a “dangerous” philosophy.

I’ve seen some performances at this space and confirmed that only a few of them had knowledge on how to put the spectacle on stage; most of them were folk groups who perform during religious or social festivities in their villages, family singers and musicians, and some, only some, prepared artists. When watching or listening to those groups you, as spectator, change your point of view and try to see these people with pity, you smile and want to say “poor” native artists (most of them were poor farmers indeed) who came to Beijing to be seen by us, people who know what they’re worth. I know what I am saying is very hard but that is what I saw.

In contradiction to my criticism I must accept that thanks to South Gate Space I have seen several folk artists who would be almost impossible to reach from Beijing without traveling far away for hours to find them in their villages. Yes, a contradiction from someone who is trying to observe and criticize.

The show itself had a strange structure, four “scenes” of Shadow Puppet Theatre were combined with short performances by singers and dancers who didn’t have any connection to Sha'anxi province or to Puppet Theatre; our Shadow Theatre Troupe were the “hook” to attract public and to trap it to watch those new groups and singers. I have to say that it was shameful, their work was more a nuisance than anything. It seemed that only their “friends and families” were happy watching them.

About our Shadow Puppet Theatre Troupe, (also called Opera Puppet Troupe because of their use of Song, as any other Opera Theatre in China), I had some mixed opinions.

The troupe was led by 76 year-old Wei Zhenye, and it is said that the Wei family has worked with puppets since the Qing Dynasty. That does not mean a very long time, since the Qing Dynasty ended at the beginning of the 20th century, and the information provided about the family mentioned three generations, so they could have started their job around end of the 19th century or beginning of the 20th. The company has made its own fame through tours all over China and even some overseas ones to Europe; they have also performed in films by known Chinese directors.

Too many photographers inside the space, too many people (many of them walking and chatting) and the difficult structure of the spectacle were a big impediment for getting good material to show, but nevertheless I can offer to you three videos:

The first video shows how the Wei family prepared their puppets before the performance.

The two follow videos shows scenes of fighting and; it’s bizarre because of its large moments without movement, but when there was movement we could enjoy a good puppet performing technique.
Video: Beheading enemies

Video: scene of battle and death

The third video shows one “scene of love and singing”, almost without movement but with Opera singing. It was nice to listen to it but it is difficult to write about my appreciation for it, as it was sung in the Shaanxi dialect and it was impossible to understand any words of the songs.

Video: Scene of singing and love.

The Shadow Puppet Theatre performance was enjoyable, yes, and now I can add one more experience in my search for Chinese traditional performing arts, but it also pushed me to remember and even to see the videos of other performances I’ve already seen: the one in Wuzhen, the one in Siem Reap in Cambodia, or the 20 yuan-private performance I had in Xi’an (1) and, given my impossibility to criticize because of my poor knowledge about it, I must accept that the Wuzhen performance is the most memorable of them all.

(1) It is a pity I lost the material recorded in Xi’an.

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