As a favorite season of Chinese poets and artists since time immemorial, autumn inspires with its crisp climate and golden foliage. Thus, it has long been the preferred time to hold events related to China's ancient arts.
Shanghai International Dance Center has declared September as its month to celebrate Chinese culture with a series of related activities including Chinese calligraphy practice, guqin (plucked seven-string zither) and bamboo flute lessons, Han clothing and dance demonstrations and tea ceremony performances.
Yào, a stage play adapted from the classical Chinese drama Thunderstorm by Cao Yu (1910 - 96), a modern dramatic writer, kicked off the event. Thunderstorm is about a man's love affair with his stepmother who then falls for a housemaid, who turns out to be his half sister illegitimately conceived by his father and another housemaid.
In the adapted play, Zhou Liya, the choreographer-director, uses Thunderstorm's framework to tell her own stories by combining three different art forms - dance, drama and traditional Chinese opera - into one single performance.
Zhou and actor Li Xing recently sat down with the Global Times to share their ideas and experiences creating this unique stage play.
GT: It is unusual to mix three different art forms into one play. Zhou, why did you decide to do it this way?
Zhou: I was enlisted by a talent program of Chinese Dancers Association in 2015 which aims to encourage the younger generations. Instead of asking participants to create a certain play by a given subject, the program encourages us to do it freely. I am a choreographer who loves drama and always tends to add something dramatic for my dancers. I used to learn Chinese traditional opera, so I started thinking about how to integrate all the things I love into one piece. I wanted to try something I didn't do before, hoping that the three art forms could talk to each other on the same stage and create some surprising chemical effects.
GT: Was it difficult to accomplish?
Zhou: I faced many challenges while working on it. The three arts are usually rehearsed in totally different ways. For a drama, a stage actor usually needs to memorize all his lines and plots composed by the scriptwriter in advance. Different from that, a choreographer only writes the story outline and the scene and creates body languages with dancers during rehearsal. And the moves of the dancers vary among individuals as they each have different physical conditions and responses. Opera is even more different; I had to make the all the actors and dancers stop feeling so awkward while sharing the same space.
GT: Why did you choose Thunderstorm?
Zhou: Thunderstorm is a landmark in Chinese drama which contains intertwining conflicts between distinctive characters. I love this play because people can see themselves in it from different aspects.
I was actually first impressed by Fan Yi as I believe that she is a character with different faces. Some works iterate Fan Yi as a woman trapped by the feudal society, but I don't think so. I think her tragedy lies in that she wants freedom and true love, but she is too afraid to break all the constraints from outside as she fails to figure out what she really wants. Many people are the same as her, asking for so many things yet unwilling to give up other things. I wanted to use Thunderstorm to express my opinion about this social condition.
GT: There are two Fan Yi in this play, a drama actor who speaks lines and a dancer who expresses emotions by dancing. Li, as a dancer how did you interact with the actress?
Li: When I dance with my dancing partner, we are actually communicating with each other with various moves. She gives a move and I follow her naturally.
But with a drama actress, I have to use the correct body language to answer her. The audience might not be able to understand the language of dance, so I have to make sure to interpret the situation correctly.
GT: What does the Chinese painting in the costumes mean?
Li: Instead of Chinese traditional painting, I take it as the residue of Chinese medicine. It is a metaphor that everyone comes from the tomb. People are alive but actually dead. The white makeup on our faces intends to create a depressed atmosphere. Si Feng is the only character who has clean makeup and costume. It refers to something pure we are seeking in life.
GT: Why do you call yourself an independent dancer?
Li: I used to dance in an art troupe for many years. I started to think about what I really want, which was to express myself more with my body, so I decided to leave the troupe.
I called myself a free dancer, I had to manage my body like running a business. It meant that I needed to cultivate myself in culture, keep practicing and acting on the stage so that I could let the audience see me at my best.
Insufficient culture cultivation can lead to shabby roles, a lack of practice might cause injuries and no acting experience would make me feel strange and like a coward on the stage. Being an independent dancer suits me at this moment: I must face all things on my own and contemplate how to make the best of myself.
Zhou Liya Photo: Chen Shasha/GT
Li Xing Photo: Chen Shasha/GT
Performers in the play Photo: Courtesy of Shanghai International Dance Center