Monday, December 29, 2008

Happy New Year 2009!

After two years of writing this Blog I only can say:

Thank you to all of you!

I wish you a very happy new year 2009!

Gustavo Thomas
Beijing, China
December 30th, 2008.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Pingyao Tea House Theater (3): Three scenes of Shanxi Opera

Shanxi Opera (晋剧) Scenes performance: Changing Masks

Following my series of "Pingyao Tea House Theater" (1), this last part presents three scenes performed during the same spectacle for tourists I have been talking in part 1: one acrobatic scene, one comic scene and one quick-changing masks scene.

Even the spectacle that night were not only of Shanxi Opera it was an unique opportunity to see a company specialized on it playing some characteristic scenes of that kind of Chinese theatre. Shanxi Opera performances are not as easy to find than Peking Opera performances; there are no much companies and their seasons are rare, usually they give some isolated performances in very special occasions.

The acrobatic scene did not show to me anything special, being very similar to other kind of Chinese operas I have seen before, I only corroborated my appreciation of those amazing actors-acrobats always working to perfection (even in spectacles like this).

The Comic scene was an interesting surprise; it was the first time I heard singing like that, not only comically but with a very special use of the rhythm. This Shanxi Opera song showed to me a very fresh way to sing in traditional Chinese theatre, codification was still there but the difference with Peking Opera (the opera I have seen the most) seemed huge.

I couldn't miss a quick-changing Mask scene; people from all over the world come to the South of China to see these actors doing that amazing switch of masks. It was a pity they did not do that inside a real opera scene, instead of it they performed those changes like an act of Magic. Not bad but it seemed to me more Las Vegas-kind spectacle than a Shanxi Opera one.

(1) "Pingyao Tea House Theater (1): Shanxi Opera Scenes Murals.", and
"Pingyao Tea House Theater (2): Seeing today Chinese spectators as an anthropological experience?"

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

北京龙在天皮影 Longzaitian, Chinese Shadow Puppet Theatre Company: "Tale of the goat and the wolf"

About a year ago the renovation of Qianmen street begun. In downtown Beijing, Qianmen was the main avenue that for centuries led the whole of the known world to the main gate (Qianmen means “front gate”) of the walls of the forbidden city.

After the fall of the millenary Chinese empire (at the beginning of the 20th century), the pre-communist years and the communist era itself, Qianmen street became just some old houses and buildings on the verge of collapse. Surrounded by one of the neighbourhoods (hutongs) of greatest commercial and cultural tradition, Qianmen remained important only due to its location, south of Tian’anmen Square.

After a year of works, Qianmen has been mostly renovated and, though there are tinges of aesthetic falsity (its central part was conceived as a thematic luxury mall, for example), the street looks like during the best years of the Qing dynasty. What’s most interesting in this important renovation is the rescue (at least façade-wise) of the most important buildings, of traditional shops and of a series of places where Beijing’s cultural life developed for hundreds of years. And so, walking on the street and its environs we can visit famous shops, traditional pharmacies, restaurants, cinemas (the first one of China, for example) and some theatres.

One of the theatres that has had more movement thanks to the street renovation (yet not its building, which still is to be renovated) is the one that belongs to the Longzaitian (or “Dragon in the Sky” in Chinese, 北京龙在天皮影) shadow puppet theatre company.

In one building the company houses three small theatre halls, some puppet-creation workshops, and a gallery-museum.

What I found most enjoyable during this visit was the possibility to (finally) watch and watch again shadow puppet performances in Beijing; it had always been hard for me to find an established place where shadow puppet performances took place regularly and by a stable company. Until then, I had only been able to see isolated performances by provincial groups or, in very special events, by pekinese groups.

Last October 12th (Sunday) 2008 I saw two performances with two of the company’s groups: “The story of the goat and the wolf”, addressed to children, and “The three defeats of the skeleton-demon”, a traditional performance based on a story taken from “Journey to the West”, one of the greatest pieces of Chinese fantasy literature.

At that point in my stay in China, and having seen dozens of performances by different groups and companies, I think I was able to better appreciate the work needed for a performance; I recognised the use of a more “flexible” kind of puppet, and a clearer way of telling stories for the modern spectator. I still can’t recognise the differences in their techniques for handling the puppets, but it is true that, unlike the groups from the Chinese provinces, the shadow puppet groups from Beijing are (as is the case with traditional opera) oriented more to real entertainment and they manage to keep the attention of the modern spectator; they have no qualms in transforming traditional plays.

The company is made up of two groups, one for children and one for traditional performances.

I’d like to mention two curious facts. The puppets for “The tale of the goat and the wolf” are handled by puppeteers with dwarfism (the company advertises them as such; a possible translation of the Chinese words used could be “pocket puppeteers”), and they don’t sing nor play instruments (as is usual in Chinese shadow puppet groups), but instead make use of “playback”.

I managed to record the whole of “The tale of the goat and the wolf”, which lasts about 13 minutes, but the traditional piece “The three defeats of the skeleton-demon”, which lasts longer (some 23 minutes) didn’t fit in the memory of my camera and therefore I couldn’t record all of it.

For now, I share “ The tale of the goat and the wolf” and I promise to share a traditional play in a next posting.

Due to the length of the video (13 minutes) I couldn’t upload it to Youtube as one video, and split it into two; here are the links:

Complete video in Ipernity:

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

三枝橘制作 Théâtre des trois oranges: A rehearsal of Luxun's "Ye Cao" 野草

Here some images of one rehearsal of Ye Cao 野草 (Wild Grass), last Théâtre des Trois Oranges's production in Beijing, China. October, 2008. I was invited by Xavier Froment and it was interesting to see this production since rehearsals and then having a point of reference to watch the performance.

I had also the opportunity to see (for first time) Kang Luqi working. He is one of Froment's titular actors. During this rehearsal I saw him as any other actor repeating movements, recalling texts, etc. But days later watching him on stage, in performance, things were different, in front of my eyes he became a very strong image of a good actor, surprisingly finding a place in my spectator's memory.

There will be a special post for the performance.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Pingyao Tea House Theater (2): Seeing today Chinese spectators as an anthropological experience?

The Pingyao Tea House Theater is, as its name says, a Tea House; ancient tea houses in China were much more than their name implies to us in these days: they were hostels (special ones, not just anyone could stay there, only people from a specific region or group), party saloons, theaters, a kind of cabaret, restaurants and, of course, places where you could drink some tea. Historians say that performances in there were done in the middle of a unimaginable chaos ( it seems a common characteristic of theaters around the world in the past): people were eating, drinking, having fun, playing all kinds of table games, shouting, laughing, walking, and not always with an interest in the spectacle being performed at the moment. You can observe in detail the picture above, a Tea House performance during the last years of Qing Dinasty, as a very good example of what I am talking about.

It seems that temples and palaces were similar, a theater performance was part of a huge movement around festivities or court parties. None of these conducts seem to have bothered the artists, they were used to it.

The next photographs show not a tea house but a theatre (Kuang-te lou) in central Beijing at the beginning of 20th Century (1), you can even see tables and how, during the performance, people are served food and drinks.

Chinese spectators has changed a little bit ( in comparison to Western ones); the arriving of Western codes of conduct at theatres at the end of the 19th Century created an intellectual elite who knew very well how to act as a spectator of any Western style performance (music concerts, theatre, ballet, opera, etc), but Chinese traditional performing arts maintained the same conduct depicted above: chaos and more chaos. It is until the end of the Mao era that Chinese spectators start to see both kinds of spectacles, Western and Chinese, with only one code of conduct, the culture of silence, at least in theory. Playwright Arthur Miller had a fantastic experience in 1980's Beijing and depicts very well, in his book "Salesman in Beijing", how Chinese spectators behaved during performance. (2)

Today, a common Western spectator still perceives as different how a Chinese spectator reacts to any spectacle and how they behave during a performance, but the change with how it used to be in the past is remarkable. Even today in the VIP section you can be served tea and cookies, with waiters walking from one seat to another during the performance, people receiving phone-calls and people talking in a normal level of voice, yet the theatre staff always ask for silence and for people to turn off their mobiles.

So, that code of conduct during a spectacle is threatened with its end, except for one special place, tea houses for tourists.

Now we can come back to our post subject. The Pingyao Tea House Theater is a theater which opens for tourists, for groups and more groups of hungry and energetic Chinese tourists. They come to this place after a long day of walking and visiting temples, museums, shops around the ancient city of Pingyao, and they want to finish the day with a meal (the most important experience for any Chinese), a laugh and enjoying a very traditional show. That is what I called an anthropological experience: a bit of that ambiance and public conduct under which performances were done in the past. A game, of course, but a very interesting one.

It is kind of difficult, due to the noise during Chinese opera performances, to differentiate the spectators’ noise, but you can taste a little bit of it in the next videos:

Video: spectators getting into Prince Gong Residence Tea House Theatre

And the last one, in the turist village of Wuzhen, a Shadow Puppet Theatre spectacle; spectators were children but that afternoon none of their teachers asked for silence... (if you listen carefully you will noticed voices of adults as well)

I remember some of the words my teachers tried to define (in their ignorance of it) the Oriental theatre: a theatre where dance, acting, singing, acrobacy, secular parties and religion were mixed... and its spectator behaved in accord to it.

(1) "Théâtre et Music Modernes en Chine" by George Souliè de Morant. Librairie orientaliste Paul Geuthner. Paris, 1926.
(2) "Salesman in Beijing" by Arthur Miller. London, 1984.

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