Tuesday was my birthday… and I went to see Terracotta Warriors at the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts on Homer St.
What an awesome spectacular spectacle. There is almost constant
motion and music to this incredible production of dance, martial arts,
gymnastics and song. It was much more exciting than seeing the Vancouver Opera production of Madame Butterfly, four years ago on my birthday.
girlfriend and I didn’t quite get there early enough to read through
the program and the synopsis, which is what we like to do for
non-English opera productions. We were
excited to see this second action-musical, written, directed and
produced by Dr. Dennis Law, which combines Chinese dance with
gymnastics, song and martial arts. While
there are no surtitles to decipher the show and the only words are
from the songs sung in Mandarin, the show is completely
understandable. It is like watching opera sung in Italian, German
or French – none of which I understand. It is like watching
ballet, distinct and interpretive movement tells the story through the
choreography and the body language of the dancers.
show opens as the theatre darkens and a lone figure dressed in
stylistic ancient Chinese garb appears near the elaborate Chinese drum
and percussion set off the right side of the stage. Offstage
musicians are common in Chinese productions, and I had last seen it
used to brilliant effect in the theatre production “Mom, Dad, I'm
Living with a White Girl” written by Marty Wong.
large gong is struck, and the drummer plays the largest dragon boat
type drum I have ever seen. He also moves to the Chinese bells
behind him. Moving very distinct and theatrical-like, at this
moment – he is the show, and he knows it. This is very different
from the musicians in a Western style orchestra pit – where musicians
are better heard and not seen.
fog rolls out from the stage, as if a large mist had filled a
cave. Indeed it is a cave as four peasants explore and are caught
in an earthquake. Rocks fall and large stone warriors are
revealed. This dramatizes the discovery of the Terracotta Army in
the mid-70's. Up to that point, very little was known about the
weaponry and costumes of the period governed by the First Emperor of
China. The discovery of Emperor Qin's burial mounds was one of
the most significant archeological discoveries of the 20th Century.
of the following scenes then interpret the life of Qin Shihuang
(pronounced “Chin Shi Wong”) from the time when the Qin army defeats
the army of the state of Yi. Qin is then coronated as first
emperor of China, the country that still bears his name over 2200 years
after his unified warring states into a single country, as well as
unifying currency, written language, weights and measures, roads and
costumes and rich pageantry fill the stage. The battle scenes are
excitingly choreographed, with dozens of fights happening
simultaneously. The court scenes allow for dance scenes and
elaborate costumes of the emperor's beloved concubines as well as for
the acrobats and performers of the court. We are then presented
with wonderful displays of jumping, sword work, giant yo-yo's and plate
twirling. These are ancient practices that have filled many
Chinese dance and Chinese opera stages over the years. But what
makes this production different is that not only are the costumes more
elaborate, but so are the sets, lighting and production values.
Terracotta Warriors brings Chinese tradition dance and theatre
production into the 21st Century.
is incredibly ambitious to attempt to tell the story of Qin Shihuang in
a single story, so highlights such as the discovery of his mother with
a court advisor turned conspirator, Qin's eunuch advisor, Qin's quest
for immortality and his fear of death, as well as Qin's tirades of book
burning and burying scholars alive are demonstrated.
achievements are so vast, that the only Western leaders that can be
compared to him are Alexander the Great, Julius Cesar who each built
long lasting empires that eventually eroded, while Qin's legacy is the
longest continuous nation on earth.
In presenting the story of Qin, Dennis Law accomplishes what nobody else in North America
has ever done before. He artistically puts Chinese art,
culture and history not only as equal with Western art, but as
historical and culturally significant. For the greater part of
the last two hundred years, China and its culture has been regarded as inferior 3rd World quality by Western eyes.
the show, Dr. Law said to my girlfriend, “You are not Chinese, did you
have any trouble understanding the story.” Deb replied, “Oh not
at all… The actions very distinctly give you the story, and the
dancing is very broad. Not a problem at all… and I didn't even
read the synopsis.” Over dinner, I had given Deb a brief run
down of the life of Emperor Qin Shihuang, first emperor of China. How he had unified China,
rising through the Period of Warring States, how he had many
concubines, and had burned books in an effort to control
knowledge, that he built both the Great Wall of China, and later the Terracotta Warriors for his burial tomb.
In Western society, the references to Asian culture are often stereotyped and have been historically racist. Original productions of Madam Butterfly had the original libretto altered for politically correct reasons. The
original production of Rogers and Hammerstein’s musical “Flower Drum
Song” was a pastiche of immigrant Asian clichés and was recently
re-written by renowned Chinese American playwright David Henry Hwang. With
Terracotta Warriors, we are able to address a historical Chinese story
with the creation of an original work of art with Chinese artists
instead of a Western perspective that directs and writes how they think
the Chinese voice should act and sound.
In my own experience as I grew up in Canada during the 60's, 70's and 80's, I learned and experienced the second class-ness of being a visible minority in Canada. To
be Asian, was to be inferior, no wonder so many Asian Canadians
grew up with negative identity crises, especially after suffering
through discriminatory head tax, labour, education and
immigration restrictions, race riots, internment camps,
property confiscation, relocation and deportation.
somehow, sitting in the Centre, with my mouth hanging open, watching in
awe of the acrobatic feats and the beautiful costumes and dancing – it
is more than okay to be Chinese. It is affirming to know that I
come from a rich ancestry of culture, art, history and innovation.