Saturday, July 11, 2009

灯官油流鬼 L’Exécution Du Juge Infernal. Beijing Opera, Shadow Theatre and a French Theatre Director.

During the festival “Croissements” that the French government organizes each year in China there was a curious stage production, 灯官油流鬼 or "L'exécution du juge infernal" (1).

I thought this production was a curiosity because of the circumstances in which it was made and the elements involved in it: 灯官油流鬼 was directed by a French director, Sarah Oppenheim, a student specializing in traditional Chinese theater, who decided to do something the Chinese had never done before, staging an adaptation of a classical Chinese opera performed by Beijing opera actors and shadow theater puppets, two types of theater that have influenced each other during centuries but never mixed, at least till now.

Photographs (slideshow) "L'exécution du juge infernal 灯官油流鬼"

To accomplish this “exploration” Sarah was capable enough to join a great Beijing shadow theater company, "Han Feizi" (2), and a group of actors from the Youth Beijing Opera Trouppe, and then to work together staging an adaptation of the classic opera “铡判官” or “Jinchan case”, an opera called "exorcist," a term for operas with subjects like death, ghosts, and travels to the underworld.

Chinese commentators and Sarah Oppenheim herself, before the premiere, spoke of a Westernization within the traditional Chinese theater: even when using all the physical and artistic elements of Chinese theater, the structure of the assembly was in a "Western style”, according to the Oppenheim vision, of course. The director then adapted the text of the classical Chinese opera and put it on stage alternating shadow theater and Beijing Opera, in an spectacle which lasted just over an hour and a half, trying to shorten the usual duration of any Chinese opera (which is between 3 and 5 hours), keeping in mind the attention span of a contemporary viewer, and directed all actions of the story based on that (3).

Some years ago I had seen “Jinchan case”, the classical version, performed by the National Beijing Opera Trouppe (4), so when I was seeing Oppenheim’s version I could recall some of those scenes and the famous arias I had seen and listened to before. I remember that production as a high quality one, in terms of physical work at least, and with particularly spectacular acrobatic moments. I can not say that this "exploratory" performance appealed to me more than the classical one, but I found it to be easier to assimilate, and much less ambitious in terms of theatrical production. What I was absolutely impressed with, though, was the work of "Han Feizi" and their expertise in handing their puppets at a very high level, with moments of enormous beauty and ability. The Beijing Opera actors, on the other hand, young and without much experience, were less fortunate that their puppeteer colleagues; I was surprised, while I was seeing their performance, how the technical perfection by the actors I saw years ago at Chang'an Theatre (in the performance of the classical opera) was missing, and I thought about how important that is for any Beijing opera production, the sophistication and technical perfection of the physical movement, recitation and singing.

The video material will always be the best approach to the experience I had as a spectator seeing 灯官油流鬼:

Video (playlist with 12 videos) "L'exécution du Juge infernal"

Years of seeing Chinese theater and also years to elucidate its possible assimilation outside China, the use of its movements or the use of its exercises (I'm not the first one to say it, of course), never led me to think about the idea of a “westernization of its structure” and, as a western artist, to offer it to the Chinese public! It simply sounds to me a risky audacity in a lost war. But this time I was a witness of it and, surprisingly, it came from a French director. Let me explain, the "audacity" I’m talking about is trying to introduce any change in the Chinese world of tradition, extreme in itself, in the world of the “it must be”. Chinese journalists and critics spoke before the premier, many with some respect and some talking about “a surprising new idea”, some even called it "subversive" in a gentle and ironic way, but after the performance they stopped talking. Sarah got a group of traditional artists to join her in this exploration, but did not get a worthy reply from the Chinese public and from the Chinese theater cultural elite; the cultural power in this country is really part of a theological state, a “de facto” power, and the people who should be there to see it and criticize it and therefore give it a place in Chinese history were not there, silence was the worst of the responses.

I love the idea of such innovative productions, western students traveling throughout china, acquiring knowledge, learning from traditional masters, seeking to explore and practice what they learn (5), and I prefer to stay with it, that's where I think the greatest value of Oppenheim's adventure lies. In the end, tell me who (as strange and unsuccessful as it may seem), who or how many understand at high level two of the most important and specialized traditional forms of Chinese theatre, adapt them and mix them in searching for a new style?

(1) The name of the show in French, not the translation of the name in Chinese.
(2) There are at least two famous shadows theatre trouppes in Beijing, Longzaitian (which I met last year) and Han Feizi. You can see my post dedicated to my visit to Longzaitian Theatre (now demolished or undergoing renovation) in:
You can read an interview on the website of The Beijinger, an entertainment magazine in Beijing, where Sarah Oppenheim talks about the whys of her production:
(4) Here's a link to my post about the performance of this classical opera; it's some video showing scenes that just seemed interesting to me, I have no critical comments:
(5) Sarah, a sinologist and a specialist in Chinese theater, travelled during a whole year throughout China in search of experiences, looking for ghosts operas and shadow theater, and learned different ways to work the traditional puppet theater. You can find a beautiful description of the cultural life of Sarah in a blog of her journey through China:
"Sarah Oppenheim, my travel partner, is a petite French woman with a fierce character. Working on her masters in Chinese theatre, she is also learning the art of puppet play in Beijing. Rehearsing every day with her troupe members in a run-down shack huddled around a coal oven, she is learning how to “walk” her puppets. To learn the art of Dongbei puppets (from Northeastern China), her master insists that she needs to “walk” her puppet for at least one year to gain the dexterity of a professional. There are many walks he claims: a calm and serene character must have a slow stride, like deep breathing, up and down, slow and steady. A clown however, must be in constant movement, his head bobbing up and down, tripping occasionally – ready to make the crowd laugh. Sarah’s master insists that she can be initiated to other puppet movements, only after learning all the walks. From her almost four months of daily practice, Sarah has calloused hands and a protruding new thumb muscle. She is fed up with “walking”. Mr. Wei laughs at Sarah when she tells him what she is learning, and says that in Beijing people are too caught up on details He tells us that it only takes a month to learn the basic puppet techniques of the Huaxian shadow play and only about one year with the troupe to learn multiple dramas and most of the techniques. In past decades this apprenticeship took longer as most people were analphabet, and had to memorize the words and music for each play, which could take around three years. Sarah is excited to learn about today’s accelerated learning and Mr. Wei invites her to study with the troupe this spring. One month of study to become an ambulant puppet player. Sounds enchanting."

Thursday, July 2, 2009

4 Days of Monlam Festival (Tibetan New Year). Day 4: CHAM DANCE Part 1 Preliminaries.

Note: See the introduction to this series about the Monlam Festival in Tongren, China on the March 20th, 2009 post: "4 Days of Monlam Festival (Tibetan New Year). Day 1: Procession of the Buddha Maitreya at Niantog Monastery".

Day 4
Cham Dance-Theater at Rongwu Monstery.

The Cham Dance is a ritual dance performed only in Tibetan Buddhism (1), with different versions of the same subject (exorcism) throughout the Tibetan region, extending from Nepal, Bhutan and north of the India to Mongolia, passing by today's Tibet. I call it dance-drama because it has elements that we westerners recognize as drama and dance, even when Tibetan religious tradition calls simply "dance" an event that uses music and movement but also tells a story through characters. I know in specialized circles these acts would be called "performative acts" or "representational acts" but I prefer to call it “Dance-drama”

The ancient Tibetan region of Amdo, today Tongren, is a highly respected region in Tibetan Buddhism because it is the birthplace of the current Dalai Lama (in exile in Dharamsala, India), and covers the whole of the Chinese Qinghai Province. Amdo, with a dry and cold climate, is full of mountains, valleys, and has a deeply religious and rural population, mostly illiterate and miserable (except for the Chinese-Han immigrant population and some privileged ones). It is politically known because in May 2008 there were strong anti Chinese rule protests comparable to those that occurred in Lhasa. The region is purely Tibetan even as it is ruled by China and is part of China.

Cham dance in Repkong has its own special style, and it is not necessary to be a scholar to find out, anyone can see any Cham dance from Nepal or Bhutan or from the Lama Temple in Beijing (2) and the differences between all of them are evident.

The ritual is performed as the climax of the events of Tibetan New Year Festival (Lunar year in Tibet) on the last day of celebrations, and is performed by a select group of monks especially prepared for it. Some speak about this “preparations” as a direct transmission of esoteric secrets from master to disciple, secretes transmitted through dance.

Tibetan Cham dance possibly has a shamanic origin, very important for the spiritual health of its people, but it no longer causes any kind of trance in its participants nor in its spectators; however, it remains of particular religious importance in the community and, of course, it works for the economy (tourism) and for the preservation of a cultural and artistic traditional jewel.

It is an interesting “performative” event and, in my experience, comparable with those indian events of pre-hispanic origin in Latin America: its movements, its dramatic choreography and its costumes and masks are very similar.

The external evolution from a shamanic act to an almost a theatrical performance, however, appears not to have given rise to a radical change in its inner structure. They (the monks) have not changed the duration and dramatic structure to make it more accessible to the public, even when it is possible that a few dances lasted for days centuries ago, its current duration is approximately 4 to 6 hours under full Sun light, enough to make any contemporary spectator run away; its music as well as its monotonous movements are still the same, and no one receives any explanation whatsoever about what it is about. That’s why I consider it a unique opportunity for any Performance researcher or any simple tourist.

Slide show: Cham dance-drama performed at Rongwu Monastery. Feb, 2009.

Narration of the event.

Due to the length of the dance and the amount of material I got, I split my description of the event in four parts written in four posts within this blog, making it somewhat more accessible in many details.

I must repeat (once again!) that I am not a scholar of performative acts nor a connoisseur of Tibetan Buddhism, but I think I have a sharp eye and a theatrical spirit (come on, I made the trip to this remote Tibetan-Chinese region to see this!) and both help me depict what I saw in a singular, if not special, way. You may or may not follow my written description, it is your decision, but the photos and video (edited in a chronological sense of events) are the raw document, pure, so, jewels to be seen.

My advice then is to follow the text description first and then watch the video for the first description, moving to the next afterwards. I know that this and the other 3 posts coming in this series are not for a quick sitting in front of the screen, so I’d also like to advice a little bit of patience and a slow reading to enjoy them better.

Part One: Preliminaries

In the cold morning of February 9, 2009 Rongwu Monastery showed a thin but continuous river of people coming to the final day of celebrations of the Tibetan New Year, coming from all neighboring regions, each one of the pilgrims prostrating themselves three times ( or more) in front of the huge golden Buddha statue in the middle of the main square, then continuing their journey around the monastery, praying while going in and out of each temple.

At 10:30 a.m. everything was calm. At the main temple’s square there were a few groups of villagers and several young monks; near the entrance of the temple I saw a sort of metal bracket with two images of skeletons with their arms and legs wide open, and I later understood it was a support for large Tibetan horns.

Inside the temple, many novice monks sat waiting for their ritual breakfast, a piece of stale bread and tea, while some of their major monks were walking doing some special preparations. We could enter to the temple and observed some of these ritual movements, like carrying incense and walking with sticks through the corridors, lighting candles, clapping rhythmically, some were familiar acts but some were totally incomprehensible for our cultural and religious background. We stopped taking pictures inside the temple, they were there for a ritual and we were there seeing everything, it was not respectful; nevertheless, some Chinese, never prudent as they usually are, entered the temple hall and took pictures and video in front of the monks as if they were statues or “objects” for their amusement.

I thought dancer-monks outside the temple were more important than these hundreds having breakfast inside and left the temple looking for any kind of preparations before the ritual.

I saw a triangular wooden structure with three spears with banners on the top in front of the square’s entrance, opposite to the temple’s door; in the middle of this wooden structure there was a triangular table with three small heads on each corner: one, a kind of skull, another one, painted green, and a third one, a pink-tinted head. I explained myself those small heads as the three states of the body: healthy, ill, and dead. Almost at the half of the square area there was a wooden platform with a painted image of a man with his body open as if by a knife; several skulls were painted on the sides of the platform looking towards the spectators.

When I asked the guide about the meaning of what I was seeing, he only repeated some information learned by heart, that the dance was about demons and served as an exorcism, so everything I was seeing was about death and beyond. It was clear that this should be an initial meaning, but what about today? Is it just a ritual which has lost much of its meaning like many rituals of the Catholic church, or does this celebration keep its spiritual functionality? I insisted asking about its effect on the villagers, whether it remained spiritually strong, but my guide, a Han Chinese, with no major contact with these festivities and ethnic group, was very limited when answering certain questions.

It is possible that the dance and its objects had already lost all religious sense for the villagers, but I’d rather think that those monks perform an exorcism-dance creating a kind of good feeling for the coming year, as an amulet, without requiring any extra participation from the people-spectators. So, simply seeing this dance creates a good omen for the next lunar year; they were only, as we were, spectators, the difference being, maybe, that they were not critical or nor looking for any kind of entertainment, they were there because it was important for having a good spiritual life. I was anxious about the people’s reaction ¿Would they sing during the performance? ¿Would they shout or speak to the characters? Lots of excitement and thoughts, but I choose to keep a healthy wait with silence.

The group of dancer-monks then were the clue of the importance of this day; religious dancers, dedicating a large part of their year practicing and learning about the meaning of their movements, meanings unavailable to outsiders like me. At this moment of the day they were still dressed in their typical red robes, but this time wearing a special kind of shoes: white leather, a strip in the center with some motifs in coloured fabric, two small peaks on the edge, a very small heels with an elevation something like 2 centimeters, a type of shoes that I had not seen in any other previous events.

Unlike the other days our group of dancer-monks were more concerned about defining the "space" of the performance; for it they had a bag of lime and wondered about the exact dimensions of the square to draw a circle (two, in fact). After some minutes of deliberation the circles were drawn with lime, and spectators could take their place outside those circles, and stay there until the time of the performance. The monks also painted a series of rectangles at the base of the stairs leading to the main temple and that seemed to be a reference for each of the characters in the dance.

Two monks came out from the temple (but prayers were still going on inside) carrying a wooden pyramid-type object with a skull on the top; the skull had a kind of cloth knot as ears (or wings?) and a flame on its head, as if it were an "enlightened death" or a "spiritual death." They placed it on the table of the three heads and returned to the temple.

We then heard the horns located on the roof of the main temple and a great excitement in the audience could be felt; it seemed that the dance would begin.

Video 1: Cham Dance-Theater. Preliminaries. Rongwu Monastery. Feb 9, 2009.

(Part 1) Tibetan Cham Dance Performance at Rongwu Monastery: Preliminaries. from Gustavo Thomas on Vimeo.

(1) We have to take care not to confuse this with other dances called “Cham dance” too, called by coincidence of sound, and because of the transcription to our alphabet from a Tibetan word. Some call this dance, to differentiate from others, “Tcham”.
(2) You will find several Buddhist Cham Dances on YouTube or searching on Google. It's better if you search "Cham dance" and add the word "Tibetan" or "Buddhist."

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