WHILE innovation remains a key word in the art world, traditional Chinese elements are making a comeback.
Tradition is being used to inject new life into modern creations by various artists. Ancient Chinese philosophy, instruments and stories are all popping up in different types of projects from dance shows to plays.
“Tradition should not be fossilized in a museum. The tradition we call today was very likely common practice in ancient times. Some of the practices survive thousands of years and keep coloring our lives,” says Chinese choreographer Zhao Liang, known for combining Oriental elements in contemporary dance.
Four such works are expected to grace Shanghai from June through November this year as Shanghai Culture Square presents the “Oriental Legacy on Stage” series for the first time.
The series starts with “Beyond Time” by Taiwan’s U Theater. It’s a dance performance embracing Zen philosophy. “Waiting for Godot” by Taiwan Contemporary Legend Theater is an interpretation of modern works through traditional Chinese opera. “The Tea Spell” by Zhao Liang Theater is a contemporary dance production with Chinese tea as a theme. “What is Sex?” by Hong Kong-based Edward Lam Dance Theater is an innovative drama based on the classic Chinese novel “The Dream of Red Mansions.”
The series is an experiment of sorts. If the market responds positively more such works are expected to follow.
Shanghai is widely considered a Westernized city, which can be seen through the popularity of Broadway musicals in the market. However, there are also many who are interested in traditional Chinese arts, though not in great numbers, according to Fei Yuanhong, program director of Shanghai Culture Square.
“It is natural for such a trend at the moment as the works with traditional Chinese elements, especially philosophies, are not that direct and logical,” Fei says. “Shanghai audiences are quite familiar with Western ones. Market needs can be guided as long as good works are introduced.”
With about 40 percent of “Beyond Time” tickets selling out within a month of going on sale, Fei is confident the series will strike a chord with viewers.
Drum beats, melodies, poem chanting and sacred movements by performers in simple white dress on stage are expected to help audiences experience and appreciate each moment with the artists as the U Theater opens the series with “Beyond Time” on June 19-20.
“Being obsessed with various ideas and plans is common these days and blocks us,” says Liu Ruoyu, founder and artistic director of U Theater.
She says “Beyond Time” is about when people break away from all those complex thoughts and focus only on experiencing the moment, or in other words, being free. U Theater’s actors try bringing these moments on stage and sharing them with the audience.
Founded in 1993, U Theater has consistently combined music, drama, literature, dance, martial arts and traditional Chinese philosophy in its stage performances. However, the theater also puts great emphasis on daily training as Zen practitioners, which makes them unique among its peers.
All members meditate before practicing their various skills. They practice on a mountain outside Taipei so that there are no distractions. Without outside distractions, theater members are expected to communicate with the universe and themselves.
“Every practice we do on the mountain is important to our performance as it determines our status on stage,” says Huang Zhiqun, U Theater’s composer and choreographer.
Difficult skills often attract audiences to the theaters. However, most may be surprised by U Theater’s performance. The dancers convey a message of calmness and mindfulness whether they are doing stunts or pounding out storm-like drum beats, according to Lin Gufang, a Taiwan critic who is also a Zen practitioner and musician.
Though exploring the connection between the body, soul and the energy in the universe has been a popular theme for theaters in Taiwan since the 1980s, most artists work from the artistic angle, which keeps them distant from “Zen,” according to Lin.
U Theater does a great job in integrating Zen with stage performances, she says, due to their strict daily practice of meditating.
“Zen, in my opinion, is a battle against oneself rather than anyone else. Though most stage performers may be used to judging their performances by the audience’s feedback, Zen practitioners should be aware of it the moment they step on stage,” says Lin, “To win this battle with no mistakes they have to see every daily practice as a battle without a second chance.”
Though drums have played a very important role in many works by the U Theater since its foundation, both Huang and Liu are open to multiple methods of interpretation.
“As long as we are clear about the message, any instrument can help,” says Huang, “We chose drums largely because we are familiar with the instrument.”
However, he also admits drums are a relatively simple instrument that express emotions clearly but are somewhat limited when it comes to interpreting complicated stories.
Every creation of the U Theater starts with an artistic conception based on a poem written by Huang. It’s then enriched with music, dance and other elements.
“Beyond Time” took the theater four years to complete and was made specifically with Shanghai in mind.
“We staged a work with relatively simple interpretation methods in Shanghai during the World Expo 2010 and realized, based on audience feedback, that they may need more elements to help them appreciate the message,” says Liu.
“We are not compromising our art, but taking expectations into consideration so as to avoid our works from becoming something no one appreciates, yet nobody dares to say it’s too hard to understand.”