Rehearsal notes with Zu You

We began with learning an excerpt from a Chinese classical dance solo: 逼上梁山 performed by 孙科.

This was for the purpose of experiencing the method of male character portrayal within the canon of Chinese classical dance, to become more familiar with the performance quality of, in this case, 林冲 (a wronged general-turned-rebel), through Chinese classical dance ways of performing.

Then we got a bit stuck deciding whom to portray. I wanted the participants to feel a need to portray the person they chose. That is, the chosen person performs their Chineseness in ways that are representative of a certain group of contemporary Chinese people.

Some very raw ideas I had for my chosen person is a Taiwanese singer, because Chinese pop ballads often wax lyrical about the broken heart, and this tendency to melancholy (evident not only in their music, but also in their music videos) is something that is reflected in the day-to-day practices. It is difficult to prove without extensive data collection, but taking karaoke singing as an example, many sing Chinese ballads as a way to express or release certain emotions or memories of the sadder moments in their lives. Thus by performing a Chinese ballad singer, I seek to perform a kind of enjoyment in submerging oneself in and re-experiencing sad emotions, which I see as a significant part of contemporary Chinese culture.

However, how am I to dance this out?

I tried to improvise some movement according to that sense of vulnerability and sadness, but the sequence of movements soon began to feel quite mechanical and meaningless, especially since I was trying to use Chinese classical dance movement vocabulary.

There was no narrative, just a guiding feeling, which did not develop into something more or something different, so the improvisation began to feel quite pointless and boring.

I began to think if I had made the wrong decision by keeping the element of Chinese classical dance movement vocabulary in this experiment.

If Chinese classical dance was representative of traditional Chinese aesthetic values, and if the contemporary Chinese don’t necessarily subscribe to that set of values, then by attempting to create a Chinese classical dance based on a contemporary person would already contain a fundamental contradiction!

Are traditional Chinese aesthetic properties a static, fixed set of ideals?

Of course, individuals have subjective aesthetic beliefs. Some subscribe to the traditional Chinese aesthetic values more readily than others, and this is even before personal identity issues come into play.

The insistence of Chinese classical dance vocabulary might be something to reconsider in future rehearsals though.

Another issue that came up during the process was the use of the mirror during the choreographic process.

This was only brought to my attention when another participant asked me why I was ‘not allowing’ Zu You to look at the mirror while thinking of his choreography.

My initial intention was for him to pay more attention to the embodied experience of performing Chinese ‘body language’ or Chinese dance, but he felt more comfortable using the mirror (and I will assume the same for the participant who questioned my removal of the mirror).

My questions regarding the use of the mirror were then:
(1) What is the process that happens between looking into the mirror while creating and then not looking into the mirror when performing?
(2) Why is there a need to self-check while moving and creating?

Zu You’s answers were that he:
– can check the positioning and the dynamics of his dancing (whether or not they are ‘ideal’),
– can ensure that he is projecting further out (linked to above point)
– can ensure accuracy when performing traditional dance forms

At the end of the week, after quite a disorganised and confusing process, Zu You created a short dance sequence based on Amos Yee.

His main intention was to perform the experience of facing public persecution and rejection. This experience resulted in a specific and strong emotion, which created the need to create/express, and thus provided him with an impetus to create movement.

In the short solo + improvisation sequence, he made use of a Chinese folding fan as both pen and paper, ‘writing’ and dropping it to represent the power of the pen and subsequently the loss of that power with a more dramatic effect.

He also articulated the need to perform technical dance movements within the canon of Chinese classical dance.

During our discussion after watching his movement sequence, he felt that his creation process was very different from the ‘typical’ Chinese dance choreographic process, which tends to be more straightforward, with a clear structure and a climax. There is comparatively more entertainment value in Chinese classical dances as well, due to the emphasis on advanced technical skills and dramatic performance.

In conclusion he felt that it is possible to use Chinese classical dance to portray a contemporary Chinese person, because there is some allowance for a wider variety of physical performance, but it is difficult, because there are still many aesthetic and canonical rules in place.

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戏曲文生 Workshop Musings

Elizabeth:

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.

Proposed Methodology

In order to answer question 1: how these traditional and foreign elements were combined to become Chinese classical dance.

I will look for certain martial arts (i.e. wushu sword and taichi) practitioners, as well as traditional Chinese opera practitioners and, using my own, and other Chinese dance-trained bodies as canvases, to learn these forms. After taking these workshops (I have not had prior training in these forms), I will conduct movement research in the studio in order to find a way to articulate how our bodies translate these martial arts and opera movements that we’ve learnt into ‘aestheticised’ versions in our Chinese classical dance practice.

The experience of how each individual participant makes the aesthetic and physical connections between the traditional movement forms and their own practice of Chinese classical dance will be recorded after each series of workshops.

Workshop series 1: Traditional Chinese Opera
30 Jan to 3 Feb 戏曲文生 by 林美琴
6 Feb to 21 Feb 戏曲武生 by 郭绪欠

Workshop series 2: Chinese Martial Arts
3 April to 7 April 杨氏太极拳 by Jaleen
17 April to 21 April 武术剑 by Justin Neo

Answering question 2: what issues might arise when Chinese classical dance is performed by contemporary Chinese people (who might identify differently from the official articulations of Chinese culture), requires discussion and reflection from the participants involved.

Each participant will be required to select a contemporary Chinese person to depict through a dance solo, ensuring that there are available resources to develop an in-depth understanding of that person’s background, as well as body language. By selecting contemporary Chinese people to depict through Chinese classical dance, each participant’s thinking and creative process will be recorded.

Further discussion will be conducted to question the participant’s initial thoughts and provoke greater reflection in order to develop a clearer articulation of the restrictions and possibilities in relation to the representative potential of Chinese classical dance in the contemporary context.

Research Question

My research focuses on Chinese classical dance. The form of Chinese classical dance is derived from a combination of ballet, traditional Chinese opera and Chinese martial arts. The core values of Chinese classical dance, however, is to represent the “essence of Chinese culture” (as articulated by the People’s Republic of China, from its creation till today). This research project seeks to question (1) how these traditional and foreign elements were combined to become Chinese classical dance, as well as (2) what issues might arise when Chinese classical dance is performed by contemporary Chinese people (who might identify differently from the official articulations of Chinese culture).

I seek to juxtapose a very fixed notion of Chinese culture, as articulated by the official Chinese classical dance syllabi, with the myriad of ethnic Chinese worldwide who identify as ‘Chinese’ in very varied ways. If the traditional dance form presents an ‘ideal Chineseness’ that the contemporary Chinese should strive towards, what challenges, or possibilities, would arise then, when contemporary bodies perform Chinese classical dance?