Knowing that we only had 5 sessions to learn about a particular genre of male character performance in Chinese opera, I was worried that the scope of the content would be too wide to cover in the short span of time, and that we would not be able to delve deep enough to make any kind of comparison to Chinese classical dance beyond a rather superficial level.
Thankfully, 林老师 is trained in dance, Chinese opera and some forms of wushu. Her wide range of expertise in different Chinese movement forms made her more inclined to draw comparisons between them, and this was also evident from her occasional comments when she was teaching us the 小生 movements.
Personally I felt that the difference between the way the 水袖 was used in Chinese classical dance and Chinese opera was the most obvious. In dance, the sleeves are used to express emotion and expand the shape and dynamic of the dancing body.
The dancer uses the sleeves to express emotion through the kind of dynamic used to manipulate the sleeves. For example, a light-hearted 仰袖 would be performed much softer, the range of motion would mostly be at the elbow, and thus the movement would look more graceful, as compared to a 仰袖 which projected despair (this would probably involve more spinal extension towards the ceiling, the use of the full range of motion at the shoulder joint and a corresponding head movement and facial expression).
However, in Chinese opera, the sleeves are only one part of the character. 小生 sleeves tend to be shorter than those of the female characters, and the purpose of the sleeves are not to extend the projection of the performer’s body, but to express certain emotions. However, the way one can express emotion in Chinese opera depends on the role he/she is playing. ‘Despair’ as performed by a 小生, would look completely different from ‘despair’ as performed in dance. A 小生 is usually a scholarly and gentlemanly character, and thus will not extend his movements beyond his kinesphere. In fact, his movements are mostly contained and less projected than that of 武生 or other 丑角.
In other words, in Chinese classical dance, 水袖舞 is very much about the spatial and dynamic relationship between the dancing body and the cloth, whereas for a 小生 in Chinese opera, 水袖 is only one of other ways whereby a performer can express emotion. In both performing arts, skill in manipulating the sleeves are vital, but the methods are different, due to the difference in the length and purpose of using the sleeves.