太极拳 Workshop Musings

General notes from class:

  • The kind of Tai Chi we learnt from Jaleen was 郑子太极拳, a simplified version of 杨氏太极拳
  • Important terms:
    • 扎根 – rooting
    • 马步,弓步
    • 松胯
    • 四正法
      • 掤 (peng2)、履 (lv2)、挤 (ji3)、按 (an4)
      • ward, roll off, squeeze, press
    • 上虚下实
    • 沉肩坠肘
    • 用胯(转胯)移重心,不要用膝盖
    • 涌泉穴:扎根的时候,把重量传到涌泉穴
    • 劳宫穴

Ruimin:

  • The more experience she has with Tai Chi, the more she realises how different Chinese dance and Tai Chi is
  • Tai Chi focuses more on the breath than the shape (more ‘natural’ than Chinese classical dance: e.g. in Tai Chi, when you lift your hand, your elbow stays dropped, but in dance, your elbow usually lifts to create a bigger shape)
  • More derived from fighting, so not so much emphasis on ‘aesthetically-pleasing shapes’
    • more functional than aesthetic
    • Chinese classical dance movements are more elongated, focuses more on lines and is aestheticised in a specific way
  • In Tai Chi, when they say “气通到手指”, its really just the 气, but in dance it is both 气 and muscles (i.e. it has to be super visible)
    • Chinese classical dance uses the breath to complement the projection beyond the kinesphere
  • 松胯to turn: in Tai Chi the focus in on the motion of the hip joint when turning to the side, but in Chinese classical dance we use the idea of twisting to initiate the movement
    • so when standing in parallel, shoulders-width apart, and twisting to the right, the left knee does not have much weight on it and thus will not get injured (which was what the Tai Chi teacher said that it might do)
  • The whole body is engaged in every movement (i.e. the body moves as a whole) but more restrictions for Tai Chi
    • dance seeks to exaggerate, so projection is usually bigger
    • in dance, the ways of using the breath are more layered, in that the way of complementing the movements with the breath is different
  • Personally, she does not like the way they 蹲 in Tai Chi, because it makes her feel disconnected to the floor, because her stabilising muscles (e.g. glutes) are not engaged
  • The idea of 松弛 in dance and Tai Chi are different
    • both believe in the notion of 气是通的 but the resulting shapes and dynamics are different

 

Elizabeth:

  • This was the only class in the ELEMENT project that was one hour long, so at first I was a bit worried that we would not have enough time, but Jaleen was meticulous in her teaching and in the end we understood a lot more even if we did not learn many ‘movements’
  • I found it hard to use my ‘natural’ breath in Tai Chi
    • in different movement styles there are different kinds of ‘correct breathing’ and then there is the ‘natural’ way that one breathes in daily life
    • by telling us to use our ‘自然呼吸’ immediately makes me think of not exaggerating my breath (i.e. breathing without having to ‘show people you are breathing’)
      • then I realise that certain dynamics do affect the breath, and with the kind of dynamic that Tai Chi uses, the breath is bound to be slower, which also means that it is deeper
      • Jaleen told us to let our 气 originate from our 丹田, which I did physically, by sucking in my abdominal muscles when I breathed out, and extending the belly when I breathed in
      • I was trying to feel some warmth in my abs and the flow of energy from my core to my extremities but to be honest I couldn’t really feel that
  • I felt that the extra attention on the relaxing of the hip joint during the transitions from one movement to another was very helpful
    • it made me feel more rooted to the ground and the movement took less muscular effort
  • I could not keep my knees over my toes in certain positions and when that happened, Jaleen told me to open up my hips more instead of moving my knee, which I found useful but couldn’t really do because my hips are quite tight
  • Some of the principles (e.g. 上虚下实,沉肩坠肘 etc.) are similar to some of the Chinese classical dance principles, and I think its helpful if dancers kept in mind some of these principles as well

太极拳十要

一、虚领顶劲 顶劲者,头容正直,神贯于顶也。不可用力,用力则项强,气血不能通流,须有虚灵自然之意。非有虚灵顶劲,则精神不能提起也。

二、含胸拔背 含胸者,胸略内涵,使气沈于丹田也。胸忌挺出,挺出则气拥胸际,上重下轻,脚跟易于浮起。拔背者,气贴于背也,能含胸则自能拔背,能拔背则能力由脊发,所向无敌也。

三、松腰 腰为一身之主宰,能松腰然后两足有力,下盘稳固。虚实变化皆由腰转动,故曰:“命意源头在腰际”,有不得力,必于腰腿求之也。

四、分虚实 太极拳术以分虚实为第一义,如全身皆坐在右腿,则右腿为实,左腿为虚,全身皆坐在左腿,则左腿为实,右腿为虚。虚实能分,而后转动轻灵,毫不费力,如不能分,则迈步重滞,自立不稳,而易为人所牵动。

五、沈肩坠肘 沈肩者,肩松开下垂也,若不能松垂,两肩端起,则气亦随之而上,全身皆不得力矣。坠肘者,肘往下松坠之意,肘若悬起,则肩不能沈,放人不远,近于外家之断劲矣。

六、用意不用力 太极论云:“此全是用意不用力”,练太极拳全身松开,不使有分毫之拙劲,以留滞于筋骨血脉之间,以自缚束,然后能轻灵变化,圆转自如。或疑不用力,何以能长力,盖人身之有经络,如地之有沟洫,沟洫不塞而水行,经络不闭而气通。如浑身僵劲,充满经络,气血停滞,转动不灵,牵一发而全身动矣。若不用力而用意,意之所至,气即至焉,如是气血流注,日日贯输,周流全身,无时停滞,久久练习,则得真正内劲,即太极论中所云:“极柔软,然后能极坚刚”也。太极功夫纯熟之人,臂膊如绵裹铁,分量极沈,练外家拳者,用力则显有力,不用力时,则甚轻浮,可见其力乃外劲浮面之劲也,外家之力,最易引动,不足尚也。

七、上下相随 上下相随者,即太极论中所云:“其根在脚,发于腿,主宰于腰,形于手指,由脚而腿而腰,总须完整一气也”。手动腰动足动,眼神亦随之动,如是方可谓之上下相随,有一不动,即散乱也。

八、内外相合 太极拳所练在神,故云:“神为主帅,身为驱使”,精神能提得起,自然举动轻灵。架子不外虚实开合,所谓开者,不但手足开,心意亦与之俱开,所谓合者,不但手足合,心意亦与之俱合,能内外合为一气,则浑然无间矣。

九、相连不断 外家拳术,其劲乃后天之拙劲,故有起有止,有续有断,旧力巳尽,新力未生,此时最易为人所乘。太极用意不用力,自始至终,绵绵不断,周而复始,循环无穷,原论所谓:“如长江大河,滔滔不绝”,又曰:“运劲如抽丝”,皆言其贯串一气也。

十、动中求静 外家拳术,以跳踯为能,用尽气力,故练习之后,无不喘气者。太极以静御动,虽动犹静,故练架子愈慢愈好,慢则呼吸深长,气沈丹田,自无血脉偾张之弊。学者细心体会,庶可得其意焉。

 

Choreographic explorations with Zheng Long

Q1: One of the first questions we asked was: “How can we clarify what 民族性 means?”

According to the official historiography, Chinese Classical Dance aims to portray:

  • 民族的风格特点
  • 继续民族传统
    • 但传统不是一成不变的
    • 舞蹈必须从武术/戏曲的‘形’中‘解放’出来
  • 必须反映时代变化
    • 经过编创/创新

民族性是:

  • 民族心理, 精神,生活
  • cultural beliefs (conceptual) and forms (actions)
  • not all positive
    • i.e. 封建时期的裹脚
  • has something that is at once both enduring and flexible (changes with the times)
  • 中国民族传统审美
    • 圆,曲
    • 精,气,神
    • 虚实
    • 写意,写实
    • 形,神,劲,律

 

Q2: The next question, is then, what if these ideas of ‘Chineseness’ have changed so much that:

  • people insist that their version of a Chinese culture is very different from that of the ‘traditional 民族性’
    • e.g. Hong Kong
  • or that because of political and ideological disagreements, people refuse to be grouped under the same category
    • e.g. Taiwan
  • or if their physical and historical distance from the ‘centre of Chineseness’ (i.e. the PRC) is too distant, so that they are seen as ‘lesser Chinese’, regardless of the actual cultural beliefs and forms that are practiced
    • e.g. Singapore

 

Q3: So is it true that only those Chinese dancers who trained in the PRC and grew up there, within that (more authentic?) culture, are seen as legitimate ‘professional Chinese dancers’?

Ans: Unofficially, no, because Beijing Dance Academy takes in foreigners into their full-time dance degree programmes and there is a category in the Tao Li Bei Competition for ‘outsiders’. But officially, there has yet to be a non-PRC in any of the large professional Chinese dance companies, and even in the professional Chinese dance companies of Hong Kong and Singapore, a large majority of the dancers are from (i.e. born, raised, and trained in) the PRC.

Therefore, Chinese Classical Dance is not just a traditional performance form, it is also a cultural, political and contemporary phenomenon. (This conclusion is gained through both previous readings and discussions with all the collaborators.)


Task #1: Depict a contemporary Chinese person through dance

Zheng Long chose his childhood friend, Zhang Zheng.

Note: music was played at random

About the character:

  • childhood friend (younger than him, male)
  • Zheng Long feels like an older brother to him
  • Zhang Zheng’s body is not suited for Chinese Classical Dance but he was led into it by his parents
    • he suffered quite a bit during school due to many teachers reinforcing the notion that he was not suitable for this dance genre
    • after graduation he went into the hip hop scene as a B-boy instead

About the movement phrase:

  • less projected movements because the character is more introverted, so even though Chinese Classical dance tends to be more projected, Zheng Long chose not to project that much
  • more gestures (rather than dancey movements) because of time limit of task (he was given 20 minutes) and because he wanted to convey  Zhang Zheng’s body language more directly to the audience
  • included a gesture that his friend always does: both hands pulling the sides of the face downwards
  • 小云手and 叩见 greeting depicts a beginning/the opening of school
    • him seeing Zhang Zheng start school
  • after the beginning there was a change in attitude in mindset and to portray this he swayed from foot to foot
    • to show that his friend was clueless and passive
  • then there was a rupture, when his teachers kept telling him that he wasn’t suitable for Chinese classical dance
    • a literal 90 degree leg hold shows how his friend could not perform Chinese classical dance movements like 搬腿
    • his intention and desire is clear but his body cannot do it
  • gesture of one hand at the side and the other hand at a high level, together with the smile on his face, depicts Zhang Zheng’s optimism despite all the negativity
  • gesture of pulling: depicts tearing apart, brokenness
    • he did this while thinking of a particular juncture in Zhang Zheng’s life when his family was faced with difficulties
  • lowering of level (with plie) after that depicts darkening of mood and losing grip on his optimism
  • 叩见 done with quicker dynamics
    • to show determination
    • he picked himself up and decided to overcome these unhappy times
  • turning of direction indicates the leaving of one dance genre (Chinese classical dance) for another (hip hop, B boy)

After the phrase was created:

When asked why he used much more gestures instead of Chinese classical dance movement, he answered that it would feel uncomfortable to use Chinese classical dance movement to depict this character because Zhang Zheng does not only have the language of Chinese classical dance.

Perhaps it was also because of Zhang Zheng’s personal history with the dance form?


Q4: What do you think are some examples of 民族风格特点?

Zheng Long:

  • 温柔,不太直白,谦虚,想的比做的多
    • 但现在不是那么多人是这样的
  • 老师解释民族风格特点的时候,语气好像肯定是100%的中国人都是这样的,但其实未必
  • but for 古典舞: 儒雅,欲左先右

 

Q5: Analysis of 孔乙己 and 逼上梁山

At first, Zheng Long felt like these two pieces looked very similar, especially because the dancer and the choreographer were exactly the same. The success of 孔乙己 would also explicitly and implicitly affect the way the choreographer choreographed in the future and the way the audiences viewed his future works.

When analysing in greater detail:

  • Zheng Long felt that the similarities were:
    • the use of travelling in diagonal lines – from an upstage corner to the opposite downstage diagonal corner – to perform technical jumps
    • a certain stylistic use of dynamic is repeated (e.g. one and TWO, where on counts ‘one’ and ‘and’, the dynamic is quick, sudden, direct, and on ‘TWO’ it is explosive and the projection of the head and eyes is usually towards a high level)
    • during the slow section:
      • the dancer stays in a low level, i.e. sitting, kneeling, rolling
      • always has this hand reaching into the distance
      • both dances end with an outreached arm with an intention to go towards that point
    • many ‘out of control’ kind of falling to the floor
    • many off-centre and off-balance movements, i.e. teeter-tottering

We both felt that the major difference was that in 孔乙己, there was more time spent on setting up the character, whereas in 逼上梁山, the character immediately begins the dance by reacting to an event (but we know this because of the story it is portraying).

The building up of 孔乙己 as a character took up one-third to half of the solo, and was more impactful also because the choreographer used humorous movement, and this is rarely seen in Chinese classical dance.

 

Q6: How do current actors ‘know’ the body language of ancient characters?

 

Q7: What cultural characteristics have changed and what has remained?

  • Changed:
    • 男尊女卑
    • less emphasis on tradition in general
    • 说话比较直接
    • 入土为安 (more accepting of cremation after death)
  • Remained:
    • 节日
    • 炎黄子孙
    • 关系/裙带
    • 过大寿
    • stereotype of the cunning Chinese businessman

Task #2: Create a solo based on Zhou Yu (from 三国演义) without using Chinese classical dance vocabulary

His thoughts: 很难受!1. 因为自身原因(不习惯)。2. 因为周羽是中国古代的人物,但突然不能用具有代表性的中国动作语汇,很难想动作!

He said that because he was actively trying to stop himself from using Chinese classical dance vocabulary, he ended up using a lot of gestures. He felt that once he allowed himself to ‘dance’, he would fall back into his habit of Chinese classical dance vocabulary, so he stuck with day-to-day kind of movements.

He also said that because Zhou Yu was someone who was so angry that he coughed up blood, it means that he has anger management issues, and he used that logic to develop his movement phrase.

Another point Zheng Long made was that it was hard to create a solo based on a historical character if one doesn’t know enough about him/her. i.e. enough research has to be done so that the performer can reach the thoughts, emotions, habits and body language of the character they are portraying.


Task #3: Create a solo based on Zhang Zheng without using Chinese classical dance vocabulary


Task #4: Create a solo based on Zhang Zheng, using whatever dance/movement vocabulary you want


郑龙,你觉得经过这4个阶段,从第一天的探索到最后的版本,中间你经历了什么?身体和想动作的思路有变化吗?或者,当你现在再看之前work出来的东西,你看到什么新的东西吗?或者记得什么吗?

His answer: 我觉得经历了一次过山车的体验… 开始时身体与思想的限制充斥于整个创作的时间里,非常的难受… 不停的去否定自己的动作,甚至到最后结出的果实也无法满足自己,就像过山车的上坡一样缓慢却不可停止的前行着。当难受到达顶点时思绪却不由自主的开始解放,我开始产生一些奇怪的动作与想法并尝试找出他们的连续性… 意外的挺顺利。过山车驶过了最高点开始飞速下冲,接下来的一切都顺利的多… 我也磨出了一些当时觉得满意的东西。现在看回那些录像,它反过来刺激到我,延伸出了一些不同于视频的创意(我想到的是一个男子三人舞),我自己感觉选择一些贴近生活的动作加以处理也是挺有趣的一种做法。

Q8: How might we reflect the changes in cultural characteristics, within the practice of Chinese classical dance?

Feminist dance dramas?

  • Currently existing repertoire:
    • 白毛女,红色娘子军 : but which are both Chinese ballets/model plays and have a very specific historical context as well
    • 中国妈妈: a competition group dance depicting a group of women who took care of a Japanese orphan during the second Sino-Japanese War
  • Other possible characters:
    • Empress Cixi
    • Wu Zetian

Pure movement pieces?

  • e.g. 技巧组合s which are performed in dance competitions as a required section
  • “Its very hard to do pure movement pieces in Chinese classical dance as many Chinese classical dance movements already have a framework of possible interpretations, but must try!” – Zheng Long

 

Q9: Do dance dramas and competition solo pieces have a BIG difference in artistic purpose/value?


One point we’re quite sure of after the exploration sessions was that Chinese classical dance does not have a static, unchanging definition. Which sounds quite obvious, but for a dance genre that is consistently being categorised (by both programmers and governing bodies) as Traditional Arts, it is a topic that sorely lacks understanding.

It is traditional in the sense that it seeks to transmit traditional culture through narrative and storytelling, but the methods and bodies that the dance form uses is contemporary. In fact I would argue that the form of the dance itself is a modern form (i.e. because it spawned around the 1950s).