STOCK IN TRADE REPERTOIRE BY ELITE CHINESE TROUPE
NZ Fringe 2015 [reviewing supported by WCC]
Shaanxi Little Plum Blossom
Qinqiang Opera Arts Group
at TSB Bank Arena, Queens Wharf, Wellington
15 Feb 2015
Reviewed by Chris Jannides, 16 Feb 2015
What an exquisite treat for a Sunday night. The Shaanxi Little Plum Blossom Qinqiang Opera Arts Group, (now that’s a mouthful of a name) from a north western region of China. These elite performers, cultural ambassadors for both their art form and their country, have travelled here to help us celebrate the Chinese New Year, aptly named, in light of our own identity and tradition as a farming nation, the Year of the Sheep.
What is Chinese New Year? I am provided with a degree of clarity from overhearing the conversation of two young boys at the end of the show. One of these young experts informs the other that ‘Chinese New Year is a bit like Christmas but a bit more out of your home than in your home’. The wisdom of young minds! I instantly notice the myriad of red Chinese lanterns suspended over our heads in the cavernous heights of the TSB Bank Arena. Like these youthful patrons on their night out with their families, I too am busily throwing light on the cultural experience I have just witnessed by comparing it to my own. I am no expert on traditional Chinese dance or opera, but there are numerous parallels with our own forms of ballet, circus, opera, vaudeville and pantomime. And I know quality performance when I see it. This is populist entertainment and high art all mixed into one.
The TSB Bank Arena, a spacious raised stage, rows of red plastic seating in a sizeable but sectioned-off area, almost filled by a large and diverse audience of mixed ages, with expectations of grandiose performance and jaw-dropping spectacle. Professional photographers hunched and stealthily stalking the front of the stage like circling predators, cameras at the ready, weapon-like. Children, teenagers, families, elderly people and dignitaries, Wellington’s mayoress and the Chinese Ambassador’s wife, no less. This is art in a stadium, art for the people. And we are not short-changed. Spectacle and the spectacular come in large doses.
An organiser informs me that with events like this the audience is usually around 95% Asian. We scan the room. The ratio here is about 50/50. She is pleased.
Lights dim and a friendly MC with a microphone, reading off a sheet of paper, appears between items, giving us useful background information and setting the scene for what we are about to see. A large video screen comes to life on the wall behind him. This provides a live feed that amplifies the action, presumably for people sitting further away from the stage. Slightly out of sync, it is interesting switching one’s vision back and forth between the dwarfed performers and their giant doubles in the video feed. This offers an illuminating study of the comparisons and differences, instantly perceivable, between ‘live’ and ‘film’. Are these giant 2D images really the people I am looking at on stage right now? Bright stage lights bounce off colourfully costumed flesh and blood performers in mirror-sequinned headdresses who compete with their iconic doubles on the projected super-screen. Gloss comes in different shades. In this instance, flesh and blood wins.
What of the performance itself? How can this be described? Firstly, there are two groups of performers, a superb company of musicians playing traditional Chinese instruments, and the dancer-actor-singer-acrobat troupe itself. In a nutshell, this is about tricks embedded in stories. And what tricks! This might also be described as Theatre of the Gasp! Exquisitely performed, this is theatricality at its finest. The calibre of the show is more than worthy of the dignitaries present.
Spectacular costumes, glittery, elaborate, lush, flowing, dramatic, colourful, exotic. Frequent use of hand-held props, swords, staffs, spears, fans, maces. Bodies breathtakingly fly through the air in gravity-defying grace and with the nimble speed and agile pliancy of cats. Martial arts moves galore, now familiar to Western eyes in all their Jackie Chan complexity, inventiveness and speed. Stock Chinese folk opera characters in elaborate white, red and black make-up, allowing for well-projected facial expressions, flared eyes and coquettish interactions. The professionalism and technical finesse and fitness of these versatile, highly trained performers mean that, as with our own classical ballet, the incredible physical effort underlying the numerous feats and gymnastic content is hidden behind a facade of nonchalance and panache. It is as though these performers are saying, ‘OK, yes, I can knock off an endless amount of backflips’, (and I am thinking a la the fouette competitions of ballerinas), ‘but it is no different for me than having a cup of tea!’
The ease with which performers such as these do the incredible is infectious. I watch children in the foyer in the interval, mirror neurons madly firing in their brains, spinning their arms wildly, doing forward rolls across the carpeted floor and eagerly imitating the exuberant martial arts moves they’re witnessing on stage.
We are treated to excerpts, mostly performed by pairs. Large group items are confined to the beginning and the end of the show, and there are some acts involving three performers. The excerpts are from Chinese Folk Operas. The storylines are straightforward. A dispute between a servant and an official. A young woman gets ready to meet her sweetheart. A girl dances in a peach garden and is hopeful of the future. Some are a bit more bizarre – a statue of a rat turns into a beautiful girl and kills seven Shaolin monks before meeting her match.
A crowd-pleaser and highlight of the show (of which there are many) is an item between two men billed as ‘a fight between two heroes’. I hear a representative from the troupe tell one of the dignitaries sitting in front of me that this piece is very popular in China. We are invited to believe that the lit stage is completely dark and that the two performers cannot see each other. Through extremely clever choreography and timing, and the addition of a small red table, the two men expertly and with great comic ability contort through an intricate maze of near-misses and hysterical edge-of-the-seat antics. They really know how to work with dramatic tension and the art of slow-motion suspense. Children, who are not as skilled as adults in repressing their emotions in public, giggle and laugh all around me through the whole of this. As with the rest of the show, whether it is acrobatics, weaponry, adrenalin speed choreography, balancing and juggling skills, mime, extremely stylised characterisation, geometrically patterned and precise dance choreography – these performers are nothing less than virtuosic.
Led by the vigour and enthusiasm of the older Chinese people in the audience, the rest of us are cued when to applaud, which of course is naturally aligned to the most impressive of the acrobatic or skill-laden moments. By structural means involving the clever crafting of our attention and emotions, we are led up the choreographic ladder of carefully placed wonders that, increasing by one degree of difficulty each time, outdo previous feats of amazement.
There are too many wonderful moments to mention that all deserve praise. The extraordinary musicianship involves an eclectic array of percussion and cymbal sounds, a traditional xylophone, bowed string instruments played upright in the lap, a weird assortment of miniature trumpets, and vocal skills that range from powerful heart-felt song to imitating shrill bird calls. Other Chinese Opera techniques in the show give a sense of the value and nature of their enjoyment. I don’t know their official names but there are ‘face-changing’, involving incredible illusions with masks, ‘fire breathing’ and ‘flag acrobatics’.
The applause at the end is well earned and enthusiastic. A large number of the audience rush like paparazzi to the front of the stage, smart phones at the ready, to take photos of the cast. The dignitaries have joined the performers and they all pose in what looks like a familiar group ritual. I stand on my chair and lift my mobile phone over the heads of the people in front of me to get my share of the photographic action.
My organiser host reflects that in retrospect it might have been useful to have English subtitles on the screen so that we could understand the Chinese dialogue in many of the items. I tend to think this might not be necessary. The clarity of the physical language of these performers is such that it transcends all cultural boundaries. There is something universal here that connects people across all continents and oceans.
Happy Chinese New Year.