Saturday, April 18, 2009

Chinese Performance Arts

For many Americans, earlier impression of Chinese performance arts often came from seeing those incredible and impossible acrobatic moves by e.g. the famous Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe. The more serious forms of performance arts remain largely unknown to the mass. Last weekend, we went to a performance that was presented in celebration of the first anniversary of the Confucius Institute at Rutgers University. The program offered a unique opportunity to sample several representative Chinese Performance Arts with top-notched performers. By sharing some highlights of the program, you hopefully will get a feel for various forms and history of the arts. You will also get a sense of
what are considered most popular.

The program of that evening covered two broad areas: Music (including Opera) and Dance. I can’t say much about dance since I am pretty ignorant about it. I did enjoy very much the choreography by Nai-Ni Chen and the performance by her award winning Dance Company that she founded over 20 years ago. With her modern dance creation of Five Elements – Fire, one can see the influence of legendary Cloud Gate Dance Theatre 雲門舞集in Taiwan where she was a featured principal dancer.

The traditional Chinese music was presented in several performances by a 6 musician ensemble and solos. The ensemble was made up of six Chinese music instruments: DiZi笛子, Erhu 二胡, Yangqin 揚琴, Pipa 琵琶, Ruanqin 阮琴, and Guzheng 古箏. I am sorry to say that I don’t know much about traditional Chinese music either and listen to it only sparingly. But it should not be surprising to you that there is a long history of Chinese music. It is well-established over 3000 years ago and its development has received significant influences from Central Asia 1500 years back. Instruments like Erhu and Pipa are good examples.

What is true though is that listening to Chinese classical music is a totally different experience from the Western (i.e. European) one. To begin with, the two have completely distinct frameworks and scales. In technical terms (see e.g., a discussion website at Wake Forest University), Chinese music mainly uses five 5 note base scales - gong, shang, jue, zhi, yu宮商角徵羽, while Western music has been dominated by the familiar seven note diatonic scales. Further, western music theory emphasizes on harmonics and ability to play many keys without many sets of instruments. In contrast, Chinese music pays much more attention to melodic line and linear quality or the progression.

One fun and quick way of getting an appreciation is to watch and hear the most popular Pipa solo score Ambush from Ten Side十面埋伏. The following YouTube video was performed by Master Liu DeHai刘德海. Some have compared this masterpiece to Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee in Western music (you may recall it was featured in the 1996 movie Shine and played in piano). Both have high degree of difficulty and can only be performed well by virtuosos.

A big part of the Chinese Performance Arts is Chinese Opera that has been popular for at least one thousand years and comes in different flavors from different regions of the country. The program presented two performances in Peking Opera京劇and one in KunQu Opera 崑曲. The latter is of particular interest and significance. Kun Opera is considered by many the mother of Chinese Operas of the last 500 years and has dominated the Chinese theatre between 16th and 18th century. It has also had significant influences on Peking Opera that has been more popular in last two centuries. What separates KunQu from others and Western Opera is its simultaneous emphasis and attention to the librettos, arias, acting, hands and body movement, completed with elaborate headgears and costumes; it is an unparallel art form with an intricate and elegant combination of literature, drama, music, and dance!

The evening was highlighted with a Kun Opera performance by two 68 year-old superstars Cai ZhengRen蔡正仁 and Zhang XunPeng 張洵澎of the Shanghai Kun Opera Theatre上海昆劇團. They performed a portion of the scene Disrupted Dream 驚夢 of The Peony Pavilion 牡丹亭, a masterpiece by Ming Dynasty playwriter Tang Xianzu 湯顯祖(1550-1616). The complete play is about a beautiful love story (what else!) and consists of 55 scenes and takes about 20 hours to perform. In comparison, the monumental 4 parts epic opera Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) by the German composer Richard Wagner is about 15 hours long (and is also rarely performed in its entirety). By the way, Tang XianZu was a contemporary of William Shakespeare. He completed this play in 1598, the same year Shakespeare wrote his Henry IV, Part II and Much Ado About Nothing. Some western scholars have considered this play the Chinese Romeo and Juliet that seems too much a cliché. Given the strict social and moral code of the time, this play was in fact radical and was a powerful and explicit challenge to the tradition and custom of arranged marriage.

Kun Opera had lost its attraction for some time and was nearly wiped out in China during the Culture Revolution. In his successful effort of rejuvenating Kun Opera, famous writer and Professor Bai Xianyong 白先勇and a group of scholars and performers adapted and edited the original script of The Peony Pavilion down to 27 scenes and 9 hours long. This so called Youth Edition was premiered in 2004 in Taiwan and later in China and U.S. with great success. It has been credited for the renewed interests and excitement about Kun Opera across the world. I think Professor Bai has accomplished his goal “ to give new life to the art form, cultivate a new generation of KunQu aficionados, and offer respect to playwright Tang and all the master artists that came before."

For your enjoyment, I managed to find on Youtube a short performance by Cai ZhengRen蔡正仁 and Zhang XunPeng 張洵澎of a portion of the Disrupted Dream. Here it is.

Before I go, I must mention another special treat of the evening: the curious Chinese magic of Face-Changing變臉 (or Face Off, remember that 1997 movie of that title?). It was and still is a part of Sichuan opera 川劇but often performed as a stand-alone magic show nowadays. This art is not as well-known outside China and has rarely been seen in U.S. One reason might be that this special skill is a tightly guarded trade secret that has been passed down mostly within male members of the families of masters.

That evening, Master Peng Li demonstrated the change of a dozen or so masks, each in a whim within a split second (the fastest world record is presumably three mask changes in one second!. Like many audience of magic shows, I couldn’t help but guessing how it was done and if these masks were initially placed on top of each other. Then the trick would boil down to how quickly one can remove one at a time and tuck it away. Just as I was speculating with myself, Master Li took one more mask off and revealed himself. Next second, as if he had seen through my mind of my question, he put back a mask on his face! Um, how does he do that? What a fantastic entertainment and illusion!
If you can’t make it to a life performance of Face-Changing, I recommend you see a very nice Chinese movie called The King of Masks 變臉. The story is about the relation of a Master of this very performance art and a little girl who aspired to become a master. If you can’t get hold of this movie, you can go to YouTube and find quite a few videos of it although the quality of them is not that good. Here is one for your convenience. Talk to you soon!

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