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:

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