Heroism Without Borders

2019-09-09 16:01:20 Beijing Review 2019年36期

By Zhao Wei

If you didnt know that you were in the David H. Koch Theater in New York, you would think you had been transported to a village in ancient China, thanks to the ambience. Gently undulating mountains, hazy as though they were seen through a mist, stood sentinel at the back while a giant branch, with flowers slowly dropping down to the accompaniment of melodious flute music formed the foreground. All the elements of stage décor spoke of China as did the performance that began to unfold, with the story of Hua Mulan, the girl who became a byword for her love for her family and her bravery, told by the Liaoning Ballet of China, based in Shenyang, capital of Liaoning Province in the northeast.

The story of how Mulan, a village girl who took the place of her aging father in the army to fi ght off invaders from the north, is now known outside China, especially after the animated movie produced by Disney in 1998. Still, delineating the transformation of a na?ve girl into a national icon through ballet in two hours is not an easy task.

“Mulan is the most challenging role I have ever played. She is both feminine and with a soldiers prowess. To depict the transformation and her inner thoughts while she was undergoing the change was a tough task,”said Yu Chuanya, the ballerina who played the protagonist in Hua Mulan. “It was different from the classic ballets I usually do and I had to forget some of the techniques I use and fi nd a new way to be Mulan, making her moves quick, punchy and straightforward.”

The ballet required martial art performances as well since Mulan, who disguised herself as a man and fought as a soldier, has some fi ghting scenes. Yu spent a lot of time learning martial art moves and training with the male dancers, who are her companions in the ballet. It required formidable skills to portray convincingly the journey of a village girl who was lost during the fi rst military training she received to the confi dent and deft warrior who would later strike terror in the hearts of the enemy.

“There was a moment when I felt I am neither woman nor man, but simply Mulan,” Yu said. The applause that followed showed that the audience also perceived this complete immersion in her character.

“I brought my grandson to the show, he is 9, and he understood the story very well,” Li Lingyan, a retired professor from Beijing who came to visit his daughter in New York, said.“Both of us laughed during the lighthearted moments and grew tense as the performance progressed. Though a modern ballet, it was easy to follow and I liked it very much.”

Li said he had told the story to his grandson but had never thought he would have the chance to bring him to watch a ballet on the legendary warrior in New York. The performance was an occasion of cultural and peopleto-people interchanges, with New Yorks Chinese community chipping in to help. Lis daughter was a volunteer at the performance.

New Yorker Robert Almanzar, who came with his wife, was emotional after the show.“Everything was beautiful. It was very moving,”he said. The Chinese stage props, he thought, were both familiar and helpful to understand the Chinese culture, which is now very popular in New York.

D.J. McDonald, festival and New York City performance manager of Battery Dance, a Broadway dance company, saw it through professional eyes. “I love the minimalism of some of the set designs. The scene painting is sort of Chinese calligraphy, very spare, very good,” he said. “You can see elements taking in Western ballet and then changi ng it by using Chinese design elements. I thought that was quite ingenious. We hope to have cooperation with Chinese artists. That will be very interesting. There are so many ways we can collaborate.”

After the fi rst stop in New York, Hua Mulans itinerary includes Philadelphia, Boston and Washington, D.C., followed by Montreal and Toronto in Canada.

Bold and Dutiful

The story of Hua Mulan, the amazing Chinese heroine who fought against invaders, has been the subject of ballads, plays and animated fi lms. On August 23, it hit the David H. Koch Theater in New York as a ballet for the fi rst time. Qu Zijiao, Art Director and President of Liaoning Ballet, which will also tour Canada with Hua Mulan, was in candid conversation with Beijing Review about how the art form can be used to tell the stories of Chinas heroes to an international audience. This is an edited excerpt of the conversation:

I fi rst read the story of Hua Mulan, a legendary Chinese warrior woman who lived during the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420-589), in my textbook when I was a teenager. There was a war and she joined the army in place of her father, as he was old.

Although I couldnt entirely understand her fi lial piety and loyalty at that time, the heroic fi gure who dressed herself up as a man to fi ght courageously in her fathers place left an indelible impression on me.

As the art director of Liaoning Ballet, I have directed many world classics featuring various foreign heroic fi gures. However, there are no Chinese heroes and heroines on the ballet stage as the art form comes from abroad. In order to present Chinese heroes and heroines and tell Chinas stories to an international audience, we embarked on the task to develop original Chinese ballets.

After our work Eight Females Jumping Into River, the story of eight women soldiers who committed suicide on being besieged by the enemy during the Chinese Peoples War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931-45), became a success, we wanted to produce more such ballets. Mulan came to my mind. She was also a defender of peace as she took part in the war to defend peace in her country.

When I started working on the project, the scenes of Mulan going to the battlefi eld and returning home after victory, as depicted in the Ballad of Mulan, unfolded before my eyes. I hope to present Mulans story using the form of the ballet to offer an interpretation from a modern perspective. I hope the audience will have a new understanding of the heroine and her deeds after watching the ballet.

Mulan has a widespread infl uence and appeal not only in China but also in the rest of the world. As early as 1921, Chinese diplomat and educator Zhang Pengchun, also known as P. C. Chang, adapted her story into an English play and staged it in New York and Washington, D.C. It was the fi rst time that Mulan was presented on the American stage and the play was highly acclaimed by media outlets such as The New York Times.

In 1998, the story was adapted into an animated fi lm by Walt Disney, making her an iconic fi gure representing the Chinese culture and loved by people from all over the world.

Liaoning Ballet carries out extensive market surveys every time it starts a new project. I conducted a survey of the U.S. performance market while I was visiting the U.S. for cultural exchanges in 2016. Both the producers and audiences I spoke with applauded the idea of turning Mulans story into a ballet.

Cultural exchanges help people from different cultural backgrounds communicate with each other so as to bring countries closer. Using a universal art form to represent traditional Chinese culture as well as Chinese values is the most effective way of conducting cultural exchanges.

Our principle is to produce works of art that can be understood by all. To realize this goal, we fi lled in the gaps in the original ballad the ballet is based on with depictions of Mulans military life and added some jokes to give the show some lighthearted moments.

In addition, we added Chinese martial arts and ethnic dances to make it a mixture of the East and the West.

As Chinese artists, we have the responsibility and duty to promote Chinese culture. Our tours to the U.S. and Canada this time are both commercial projects. There are no discounted or free tickets because we want to know if the U.S. showbiz market really accepts our show.

Art knows no boundaries. It is our constant pursuit to bring art that combines Chinas national characteristics and contemporary aesthetics to the world. We will continue to tell the story of Mulan and spread her heroic spirit.