Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Tamasaburo Bando's "Mudanting" in Beijing (2008)

Note: This entry is the first of two parts (or more, I don’t know yet), where I express my views and concrete facts (information, photos, videos) on “Mudanting" (牧丹亭) by Tamasaburo Bando and the Suzhou Kunqu opera company on May 14th 2008 at Huguang Theatre, in Beijing.

My intent after the performance was to write about my impressions as soon as I got home, but my mind was (and has been) in a state of confusion since that night and for two days already. Reading and dreaming has helped me clear things.

I observed with attention, calmness and rare pleasure the greatest feminine role specialist actor of our time, Tamasaburo Bando (坂東玉三郎).

I found out about Tamasaburo on the internet, through videos of his work, most of them exposed by a faithful fan of his (1), and I simply adored him. I saw and reviewed each and every one of those videos, I recognised in him not just his technique, but the creative greatness of one of art’s greatest phenomena. His presence held me like Kazuo Ohno's years ago, I anchored myself to him and his acting. On the night of the 14th I had him just metres away.

Huguang Guildhall (北京 湖广会馆), the oldest Chinese Opera theatre in Beijing, built in 1812 and rebuilt in the 1990’s, has been home to the work of many generations of great Chinese actors, it has seen the divine ones (2). This is one of those rare occasions in which it welcomes a foreign star with a classic Chinese piece like “Mudanting” or “The Peony Pavilion”.

Staging The Peony Pavilion in China is crazy, is artistic suicide, unless one is sure of what one’s doing, of what lies behind oneself. You can’t simply go to London and tell Britons how to do Hamlet!

China is Japan’s cultural mother, its only, main and basic source; China is also Japan’s biggest political rival: hate, envy, resentment and sorrow flow in the blood of the people; but China is also the challenge and the peak for the Japanese. Not to fear China is not to fear the force of tradition and the weight of great figures. Tamasaburo, being great, being a genius, being polite, is the adequate one for an encounter under such conditions.

Tamasaburo belongs to that great line of traditional oriental art actors who possess the spark of change and of the revolutionary; he knows his world, he does not challenge it up front but seduces it into change. In that sense, Tamasaburo is a divine reincarnation that, as it is perceived all over Orient, has subtly attracted the unrefined attention of the people that love him, and so promoting the support of the connoiseurs, and getting respect for his vision.

The stage entry at the Huguang Theatre was measured finely: with the surrounding frame of a beautiful Japanese style choral chant, the introduction to the history of the Peone Pavilion, in that mythical and delicious garden, lets us see little by little a Tamasaburo in a role that personifies what Chinese consider romantic and idealist love.

(This is a special note written after the publication of the post: I realized that this first scena wasn't Tamsaburo's performance of Du Liniang (from Mudanting), it was a special personal portrayal of Yang Guifei, the concubine. After that he performed Du Liniang the whole show. I strongly believe that this mistake doesn't change my points of view about his work that evening.)

With singular beauty, the creator chooses the golden details of his dress, with a subtle yellow backdrop for the base cloth, thus offering us the birth of the sun at dawn. Yes, Tamasaburo does not follow Kunqu’s dictates, but he introduces changes which deserve no negative criticism.

In order to present a different staging of Kunqu (and in order to be accepted in China), he had to work with an open but stable company, and so the choosing of the Suzhou Kunqu Company was perfect, as the company was renowned for its daring versions of this same piece (2) and other belonging to the same genre, with changes not only in the way of staging it but, what’s more difficult in China, in the way of singing it. They’re very famous for their scandalous plays and they’re opening the field to the outer world. Their singers are educated with the best techniques, they act with precision, they know how to be clear and subtle, they know how to be loved and, as young people growing and flowering, they have the way open for creating the new Chinese opera, an opera that can evolve following the Oriental tempo. (4)

Tonight I’ve seen a stage paradise, I’ve seen dreams and love; I’ve enjoyed singing like I hadn’t heard before, a difficult singing, to be honest, for a Japanese speaker. The then divine presence of Tamasaburo joined the beauty proper of this immense lyrical and poetic work from the 16th century.

In the very Oriental play of reincarnations I saw, in the work of Tamasaburo’s body, the mythical Mei Lanfang. At last I could break away from the horrible feeling of watching those videos left from the most important Chinese Opera female impersonator, acting during his last years, fat, slow, insecure and with a voice that was hard to enjoy. Mei Lanfang was divine from his adolescence until his forties, and afterwards he just lived on his success (5). The images of his acting during his glorious years remain in the memory of the spectators, not on recorded materials; there are many recordings of his voice and also photographs, just photographs, undoubtedly beautiful, and 5 minutes of silent material filmed by Einsenstein during the 1930’s. Tonight, May 14th, I could see him move on stage, I could see what Chinese who know about Chinese Opera see, the genealogy of teachers in the “doing” of the actor.

The singing, the dresses, the choreography and the acting (not the mimic). With deep knowledge about his own talent and of his creative personality, master of his eyes and column, Tamasaburo is a magnet, and possesses as well a fabulous control of his projecting: he knows where we should be looking and how.

Seeing him, then, is seeing the past in the present. Seeing him then is seeing the masters. Seeing him is also seeing the presence of the mythical Western starts of the 19th and early 20th centuries, masters of body techniques and of projection. I remembered Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse, I remembered their poses, their body control and, thanks to the recordings they’ve left, I also remembered their voice work. Tamasaburo’s acting is, I think, an example of how the acting of those divine actresses would have been perceived. As soon as got back home I looked again at pictures and images of these goddesses, I watched their eyes, I compared their written impressions, I was stupefied. “They use the same principles”, Eugenio Barba would probably say (6).

Tamasaburo is a modern actor that lives in the educated body of a Kabuki actor. By going beyond his tradition (as he’s done on previous occasions) he’s had to act like a serious Western actor would do when playing a role in a foreign context and with a complicated technique: observing each detail and working on it, imitating what’s necessary, recreating, searching for the character, using his personality and talent. Tamasaburo didn’t perform Kunqu, he recreated Kunqu. He gave warmth to a character that most Chinese actresses project perfectly thanks to the confidence that years of detailed technical work has given them; Tamasaburo endowed his character with subtleties (like those that Mei used himself), he acted in our Western conception of the verb “to act”, yet he never disrespected the technical bases of Kunqu; we never stopped watching and listening to “Mudanting”(7).

At the character’s death, as difficult as any other death on stage, I perceived an almost dangerously excessive use of gestures. The difference in his signing was audible but it didn’t damage his work, nevertheless in the last scene, for a second, I thought I saw the beauty of that mask, created for the character, break apart; I saw the imminent danger of the loss of tradition and the colapse into “realism” (why precisely he, an actor of Japanese tradition? I don’t know), there was a divergence with the specific detailed technical gestures; but it didn’t go too far. Great people do sometimes get close to tripping, and sometimes they do fall; this time and from my point of view, it was’t the case. I applauded with relief.

At the end, the divine Tamasaburo thanked a euphoric audience (8) with the same personification of dawn (as my memory now remembers it) that served as opening for the play at Huguang Guildhall.

( Translation from Spanish: Tadeo Berjón)

Video of Tamasaburo’s performance in Beijing

(1) Youtube:
(2) The story of the Huguang Guildhall is truly interesting, it’s the story of theatrical space in the world: first, a sort of shelter for travellers, then, an important gathering place for intellectuals travelling to Beijing to sit for their bureaucratic examinations, a tea house and restaurant, always with a special room that was continuously adapted for social events, ever more stylish, ever more specifically suited for the Opera that was performed there. Finally, rebuilt in the 1990’s, it became and has become a point of reference for many events concerning Peking Opera. Although not always with the best actors, and almost exclusively dedicated to shows for tourists, it still stands out as an architectural gem, without parallel in Beijing. When I heard that Tamasaburo had chosen exactly this space for his performance, it gave me great pleasure, and it confirmed in my mind the importance of this theatre for Chinese Opera
(3) The company has created a “juvenile” version of Mudanting that became a real headache for Kunqu purists.
(4) Breaking apart from the links that, in the West, have united dramatical processes for centuries is a battle few dare to fight, and many lose it and fall into rejection and oblivion; big personalities like Mei Lanfang were victorious by sticking to their own tradition, becoming its best performers, and then subtly changing, perfecting and, most importantly, creating new pieces with those new details; that evolution is what we call “schools” which can then become a “style”. We must not forget that Peking Opera itself is the result of 100 years of evolution that finished in the 19th century and reached its peak with the revolution of Mei Lanfang. The arrival of communism marked the death of his art. The chaos after the cultural revolution in China created a governmental barrier to everything revolutionary concerning traditional arts, now seen as intangible relics from the past, and few have been allowed access to the processes of renewal and change.
(5) With the arrival of communism, Mei Lanfang dedicated himself to promoting Chinese Opera education, yet he became a sort of living museum; he wasn’t admired for his present work but for his past, and as he was losing his technical ability he gained in the creation of his own myth. Seeing him acting in those videos where he was 60 years old is, from my point of view, deplorable, given how great he was in his youth and middle age. Most of the actors that performed his roles had to retire before losing the abilities to remain great in the memories of the spectators.
(6) This is a reason for not one, but many posts.
(7) One of the characteristics of most of the Chinese stagings of his theatre is technical coldness; as Westerners we look for emotional energy, for which we have prepared for years as spectators as well as creators. The Chinese, knowing little of this kind of work, confuse it with the emotional demands of "melodrama" and imitate it till death. We see their theatre as cold, they see ours as an explosion of cheap emotions. Tamasaburo, I believe, creates or discovers a middle ground where voice, body and gesture techniques from Oriental tradition have their place next to the requirements from Western interior projection. It is the “soul” that only a few achieve in their performance, Zeami made it look as the most precious of achievements, a professional peak to become a divinity on the Japanese stage. It’s obvious that Tamasaburo is not a Western actor and neither has he been trained in a Western school to achieve that but, as we can find physical principles for a theatre work, I strongly believe that there are internal principles (psychological, mental, emotional principles) that can be practiced the same as physical principles.
(8) The euphoria came mostly from the Japanese spectators, which filled half the theatre. The Chinese spectators, though happy, we’re more reserved. Tamasaburo has been praised in the Chinese press and by famous artists of this genre, but the qualifiers have not been excessive nor effusive, but rather reasoned and respectful.


  1. very insightful write-up! thx!

  2. he is coming to suzhou in 2 weeks - another chance to see it =

    Suzhou Science and Cultural Arts Center on March 13 and 14

  3. Very insightful. Althouth I am not sure about your comments that the "the “juvenile” version of Mudanting that became a real headache for Kunqu purists". It was also beautifully done. SZQ company will stage the play on May 10-12 in Singapore. You should check it out. A group of us from HK are flying over to see it.

  4. I was at first, intrigued by an image from his photobook when I was looking for information on kabuki to complete my class assignment.I never could have thought that a man could be this beautiful. Three months later, out of boredom and because I could never get that image of him out of my head, I watched one of his videos, 'Fuji Musume'on Youtube.I immediately fell in love with his performances. Reading your write up on 'Mudanting', I wish I could see it as well.


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