Thursday, February 25, 2010
Monday, February 22, 2010
It is said (people who knows about it) that in the origin of the acting technique in Chinese Opera it was the way puppets were manipulated to become alive. Following strict patterns from ancient rituals to convert a dead matter in a live body, in the same way the actor’s body becomes alive in a new one, through training, in a theatrical body. That’s a fascinating subject but today I want to go further back in history. It is also said (the same savants) that the origin of the Puppet Theatre technique of movement it was inside of the ancient tombs of China, in the technique mortuary figures were made for. Human-like figures, made of wood, paper, bronze or clay, which must have had movement to recall and to reinforce life to the dead once installed in the other world; and the techniques to provoke movement in those mortuary figures were used later to create a Puppet performance outside the tomb (and at the end the actor’s performance as well).
I knew a little bit about this ideas before arriving to China but it was there, in 2005, when reading Jo Riley's book Chinese Theatre and the Actor in Performance (1) that I answered many of my questions about Beijing Opera Actor’s movement technique and I could compare them with what I was seeing in every performance I attended in China. Of course, and I must say it, this doesn’t mean that a common modern Chinese Opera actor is aware of this origin, or any other, in his training, he learns from a tradition, most of it imitation, and in that kind of education many questions are not answered and origins usually are covered with mystic and fantasy. That’s then part of a researcher’s field or maybe of a curious observer.
What it’s fantastic in all this story is the origin of all of it, apparently very simple human-like figures buried in a tomb, functioning as puppets for the dead, as a company for the other world, recreating life and movement in a subterranean stage-world. It wasn’t till the last century that Chinese discovered the figures and researchers could elaborate a reasonable discourse about their function in funerary rituals, keeping the idea of being alive through reaching the movement inside the tomb. So, many of these figures were made with moveable arms and jaw, painted with vivid colors for the eyes and signs referring to muscular gestures, and in some tombs hanging in a position that could keep them in movement thanks to the air (as a common puppet); all of these figures imbued of substances linked to the fluids of life (related to the Chinese terms of Qi and Shen), blood of course and several mineral powders.
Riley makes for us a fantastic parallelism of the ways those figures were made with the objective of becoming alive and how Chinese Opera training technique is structured to create the actor’s new body for the stage. In the beginning puppets were a medium for exorcism in the underworld while actors were exorcists in this our "real" world; both should follow the same patterns, being related to the same materials, and of course the same technique to become alive.
I didn’t find any of these figures inside China, only because I didn’t have the opportunity to travel where they were in exhibition, but surprisingly I found two of them during my visit to San Francisco in February 2009, inside the very well known Asian Art Museum; these figures are made of clay and their arms, once moveable parts, are missing. The Museum information said they were more than 2000 years old.
The next photographs of mortuary figures come from Jo Riley’s book, from a Principal's tomb in Mawangdui, just 40 kilometers from Changsha, in Hunan Province. The Tomb dates to approximately 168 B.C.
Finally here you see two photographs with more mortuary figures taken from an Internet site: one of them, from the Mawangdui tombs, shows a group of musicians with their instruments (it is not dated), and the other presents an almost recognizable modern puppet (but still a funerary figure), dating from Liao Dynasty (Between 907 and 1225 A.D.).
As usual, I’m happy to expose information and documents, then, the rest, if up to you. See you next time.
(1) Jo Riley "Chinese Theatre and the Actor in Performance" Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, 1997.
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
When I was a child, there was a lot of possibilities for fun in the field of art, but only two were taken as seriously as the beginning of a career in piano or ballet. Those were not entertaining games where doodling or playing with dough became art, there you were going to study something with discipline, you would use a technique, a particular technique, to advance, a technique which, if you didn't follow within certain parameters, you could be rejected . So, not wanting to be a pianist or a dancer I amused myself by painting and wanting to be an actor, pretending to direct orchestras, writing melodramatic dialogues and organising theatre plays among my friends say, at a very high level of improvisation and fun.
It was not until my teens that, when beginning professional acting studies, I discovered I could have started my acting career in my childhood, with the same seriousness as that in ballet or music, but not in my country but in the Far East. The stories of the wonderful Chinese and Japanese players came to my ears: great actors who began their studies at 6 or 7 years old and spent 10 or 15 years working with their masters to attain their first important role in a production; actors who learned a physical and vocal technique not through exercises as such, but through the "imitation" of their master (1). And so I also discovered how this educational process in the performing arts was a common situation in India, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and, of course, Bali, the theatre island or, rather, the island of the performing arts.
China showed me the first live examples of these "serious" schools for children where there is no way to achieve perfection but through discipline and following for years a rigorous technique of imitation and repetition from the beginning. I could observe and see not only how these children were being educated, but also their results on stage after 8 to 10 years of study (before they began their professional life), and then I could understand why the technical grandeur of these actors in their youth (in their twenties and thirties). In the same way and through the direct testimony of young artists who had just entered the professional world I could hear their questioning of such a rigorous and cruel education which, in today's China, would give them a profession would that barely cover for their minimum financial needs when, in the past, it would have given them wealth and fame (2).
Unlike their Japanese and Chinese counterparts, Balinese artistic education is much more relaxed; the same principles of imitation, repetition and practice are followed, as well as the beginning of education from early childhood, but not so the tremendous discipline demands (like boarding-schools, between 10 and 12 hours of practical study, etc.) nor the violence by which several great masters of the north are known. In Bali itself children are still taught to dance and act for the Balinese, for their religious festivals and temples, for their entertainment and for the tourists who support the economy of the island, all in the same way as Miguel Covarrubias observed and filmed in the 30s of the last century.
Learning in the Balinese performing arts is a learning based on physical contact. Most of the dancers-actors begin their learning between 6 and 7 years old. At first, the student stands behind the teacher and imitates his movements. The teacher sings the melody of the dance, or uses a boom box, and follows the beat of the gongs marking a pace and giving directions based on that rhythm. Once the choreography is learned in its basic, the teacher changes and moves on par with the student, behind him, and manages the student body like a puppet. This allows the student to feel exactly the inclinations and movements of the wrists and elbows, plus the position of the back and hip. No mirrors are used, so the student follows by imitating the teacher or the teacher moves the student's body to show through physical contact the total energy and rhythm to be danced. With his voice, if that's the case, the student imitates the singing or recitation of the teacher.
In the following two pictures we see I Ketut Mario, one of the greatest Balinese dancers and choreographers from the twenties and thirties of the twentieth century, and I Nyoman Kakul, in 1974, teaching their respective students. It is very clear how physical contact between teacher and pupil happens.
(1) The film "Farewell My Concubine" has a very long and accurate sequence on the demanding education in Peking Opera in the late nineteenth century. In the following link you can see some images of drawings that show a school of Peking opera in the early twentieth century:(2) This is one of the greatest cultural challenges in today's China, the glorification of western entertainment culture at the expense of their traditional culture. (Until the late forties of the twentieth century Peking opera was as commercial as any other current entertainment, but at present it is only a theatrical vestige of the past).
Sunday, February 14, 2010
CN Tower and Lion Dance during Chinese New Year Celebration in Toronto
Originally uploaded by Gustavo Thomas
Happy year of the Tiger!
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
I’ve seen people dancing Tap in many occasions in my life, most of them in films, some, live, as spectator and as part of musicals I was working in, never dancing myself though, but enjoying watching it and in some occasions, very especial occasions (I’ll talk about them later), feeling the freedom coming from the dancer with that remarkable sound and that trembling in the floor those foot movements provoke when are very well performed, and on the street.
With the time and studying about acting techniques, and different ways of body speaking on stage, when Tap appeared again in my life I had to stop a little bit more than enjoying it, and thinking more about that strange feeling it has always given to me when is performed amazingly, a Jazz-like feeling of freedom and beauty.
You can speak, have a dialogue or singing in a group only by dancing Tap, and that is absolutely amazing.
But, how do they do it? I accept it, have no idea. It remains a mystery for me.
As Flamenco or Irish traditional dance do Tap dancers move spectators making hearts beat at their foot's rhythm. Strangely, the places I have experienced this feeling were not on a theatrical stage but on the street. That doesn’t mean nothing, only a coincidence; what I’m looking for is how to explain better my experience, how to share it with more than “my feeling” of it.
I remember two moments as spectator of a Tap dance performance on the street:
My first experience was when visiting London in 2007, on the Thames riverside (not far of Shakespeare’s The Globe) I found I guy dancing Tap on the street; he was performing on a simple piece of wood, with a colleague musician accompanying him drumming with a box as his instrument... Not talking about the quality of his technique (I guess he was a good dancer) I can only referrer to its dancing as the same unmistakable feeling of freedom and touch-sensitive experience I talked before; its sound of his steps echoed everywhere, including my body. I was seeing a man in ecstasy, impossible to know if was caused by the dance or because some drugs in him; anyway, his feeling was contagious. You can see him in the video I posted here.
My second experience, 2 years later, was in San Francisco. A group of street Tap dancers where performing for tourists at the corner of Market street and Powel Streetcars Station. They were happy performing there, having fun while dancing, and we tourists were happy with them. In this occasion dance dialogue and chorus was what I enjoyed most.
For sure many of you have had many great experiences with different kind of dances (street dances or very high professional), having those impressions I’ve been talking here, but do any of us can talk with knowledge about the reasons, about how they work and how they provoke on us this feeling?
Reading some dance anecdotes compiled by Mindy Aloff (1) I found a passage where Savion Glover talks about Tap, its rules and how they usually perform. It doesn’t explain everything but it is a word coming from whom is considered one of the most important Tap dancers in history and heir of a long American tradition of Tap dancers not exactly educated in a school but on the street :
“Honi (Coles) and Buster Brown and Lon Chaney and Jimmy Slyde and Ralph Brown and Chuck Green -they thought me the rules. And you have to know about the rules, because that’s respecting the tradition. Take the hoofer’s line for instance (2). That’s where everybody’s doing a paddle and roll and one dancer at a time takes a solo turn. There are rules, but the rules are unspoken, almost secret. The main thing is, you got to finish the phrase of the man before you, finish it and then add something of your own. And if you don’t, you’ll be cut by the next man, embarrassed, you’ll have your own step flipped back on you. You can spit on someone through the dance. You can murder someone through the dance. Dancers do that all the time. It’s part of our ritual to be competitive. And you know when you’ve been cut. It’s terrible, especially if a lot of people recognize it. If it’s like that, you’ll get everybody going: “Oooooooooo...”
So, as Jazz does, Tap "hoofers" got its own secrets rules, maybe I was not mistaken my perception coming from I was feeling about this kind of freedom while performing tap on the street, they are in a dramatic dialogue, taking risks and having fun. After these words I can watch again those videos I posted, and see one more showing Glover dancing with a fantastic group of dancers at the White House in 1998, and then having new approaches to this amazing art.
(1) Dance Anecdotes. Compiled by Mindy Aloff. Page 77 “The Rules”
(2) It is not an academic forum but it is a forum where people interested in Tap think about the meaning of "hoofer": http://www.dance.net/topic/8387682/1/Tap/What-is-a-hoofer.html&replies=6