Terracotta Warriors ignite war of words about reviewing art and culture

Terracotta Warriors ignite war of words about reviewing art and culture

By Todd Wong

In Vancouver, a debate over how art should be reviewed is growing.
On one side is Dr. Dennis Law, one of the owners of the Centre in
Vancouver for the Performing Arts and the writer/producer and director
of Terracotta Warriors, the second in a development of show spectacles
he calls “Action-Musicals.” On the other side are Vancouver’s art and
culture critics of the Vancouver Sun, West Ender, Globe & Mail and
Georgia Straight. In the middle are Vancouver’s audiences, many whom
are enjoying “Terracotta Warriors” despite what the reviewers are
writing.

All this is taking place during Asian Heritage Month, throughout
May, recognized across Canada with major events and festivals going on
across the country. From Montreal to Calgary, from Ottawa to Victoria,
Asian Canadians from multi-generation descendents to new immigrants are
staging productions to affirm their identities as Asian Canadians, both
in traditional arts rooted in Asia, and also in contemporary arts that
are strongly Canadian.

“East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet”,
wrote Rudyard Kipling during the hey day of the once mighty British
Empire. Colonial rule in India, Hong Kong, parts of Africa, Central
America, the Caribbean as well as North America, imposed upon resident
cultures its’ own brand of colonial justice and values, long before the
terms of “cultural relativism” and “multiculturalism” were invented.

And so it would seem to me, that when a new arts impresario from
Denver Colorado steps into our Western frontier town and challenges the
status quo of arts and culture in Vancouver, all the other local guns
have to challenge the newcomer. Indeed, the wagons are being circled
and the posse is being rounded up looking for a lynching.

Terracotta Warriors is neither traditional Chinese Opera nor dance,
neither is it a traditional Broadway Musical. Rather it is an
“Action-Musical,” a new artform that blends traditional Chinese Arts
with modern technology. This could be similarly compared to how Cirque
du Soleil has “borrowed” many traditional art forms from around the
world such as Chinese acrobats and Polynesian fire dancing combining
them with lavish costumes and music to reinvent the Circus in the late
20th Century.

Law is simply doing the same, merging the old with the new, to
create a new way of presenting the once familiar. Isn’t this what Art
is supposed to do? Show us new ways of seeing? Seeing the objects
around us with fresh eyes, the way Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso and
Igor Stravinsky did – much to the dismay and public outcries of a world
not ready for Modernism. But is the world ready for Chinese Dance and
Opera to be reinvented for the 21st Century? If not by Dennis Law, then by whom? And if not in Vancouver or Canada, then where?

Law claims that the reviewers are unfairly biased towards his shows
and instead of writing good journalistic art critiques, they are
writing personal attacks against him. The critics are writing that Law
doesn’t make his show accessible enough for Western audiences and that
the plot is convoluted and hard to understand.

Leanne Campbell (Westender) opens her review by comparing the music
and smoke effects to a Heavy Metal concert. What really happens is that
a Chinese percussion player plays on a large array of Chinese drums and
large bells. One must wonder if Ms. Campbell is ignorant of Chinese
music and art or mistook the theatrical smoke for her hard rock youth.
Such a statement comparing Chinese music to Heavy Metal music smacks of
cultural ignorance similar to bebop jazz music being derogatorily
called “Chinese Music.”

Understanding and appreciating cultural diversity is what Asian
Heritage Month is all about. Being open to new or different forms of
art is important to our culture, otherwise it stagnates. Ms. Campbell
and other reviewers are all Western Caucasians, presumably writing for
a White audience with a Western Caucasian perspective. But isn’t
Vancouver supposed to be the city of great diversity and
multiculturalism and tolerance for other cultures? Perhaps not in the
arts world. or maybe just amongst some specific critics.

Max Wyman, Vancouver dance critic emeritus, writes in his new book
“The Defiant Imagination,” that Canadian culture must embrace cultural
diversity. “Canada is an experiment in constant renewal, a
welcoming society built in a spirit of democratic pluralism. We are
finding that the experience and knowledge of a multicultural population
with roots in many countries and societies is one of our great
strengths. From that diversity flow insight, creativity, wisdom.
Confidence in our culture and belief in its living, ceaselessly
changing diversity gives us a communal ability to counter xenophobia
and cultural paranoia.”

Wyman paints an artistic back drop of a Canada moving beyond
multiculturalism to become a truly global leader of culture, where
Vancouver’s artists are looked upon as leaders in their fields. Artists
such as Kokoro Dance, Battery Opera and Boca del Lupo all receive
worldwide recognition for their cultural fusion led by teams of
inter-racial marriages and partnerships. On the global scene it is
exotic, in Vancouver, inter-racial and inter-cultural is seen as the
norm.

And yet the Vancouver media seems to prefer criticizing Law on a
homogenous set of values based on Western morals and values as opposed
to trying to understand the new cultural ideas he is presenting to us.
Perhaps this is a diversion for what they don’t understand about
Chinese culture and art.

Witness comments by Alexandra Gill, (Globe & Mail), who writes
that Terracotta Warriors is “gorgeous but painfully amateurish” and
wonders if Law is “an artistic visionary who truly believes there is a
Broadway-bound future in his action-musicals? Or is he just a wannabe
director with lots of money and a big theatre to play in?”

Afterall, trying to understand Chinese culture is a tremendous task
4000 years of culture with a country 5 times the size of Europe and as
twice as many cultural subgroups if not more – all rolled up into a few
cliches and stereotypes for easy Western digestion. Small wonder that
after a few hours Westerners minds are hungry again – they didn’t
digest enough in the first place.

Being an impresario is hard work. Law denies he is one, but over the
past three years, he has brought us “Heaven & Earth” his first
action-musical, plus the Denver Ballet’s production of “Dracula” and
“Eagle and Dragon”, a musical concert featuring Chinese and American
classical singers. Vancouver’s own local impresarios have failed and
succeeded in our market. David Y.H. Louie, despite his financial
failings, is still lauded as a visionary to bring exciting dance
companies to Vancouver. And Vancouver Recital Society’s Leila Getz has
succeeded where people told her recitals weren’t viable. Getz herself
has said that it is important to maintain an artistic vision and to
bring artists whom she feels are important and not necessarily just
what the audience thinks they want to see.

But where are all the Asian voices in this debate. Well which Asians
do you mean? Vancouver’s Asian population is as diverse as the many
countries and generations they arrived from. And this may simply be the
problem. Vancouver and it’s artistic community still doesn’t understand
its’ Asian audience.

My own Asian heritage is descended from the Chinese pioneers who arrived in the late 19th
Century. Our families are so integrated into Canadian culture, we are
considered to be the “invisible visible minorities.” Chinese culture
and history is largely foreign to me, so I welcomed the experience that
Terracotta Warriors has provided for me to learn about Chinese art and
culture and especially one of history’s greatest leaders and
visionaries. Emperor Qin Shihuang accomplished not only the unification
of China, but also its language and monetary system, and is considered
only to be have Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar as historical
equals. Even Ramses, Genghis Khan or Napoleon couldn’t maintain an
empire as large or leave as lasting a legacy.

I took my Chinese Canadian parents and my White Canadian girlfriend
to see Terracotta Warriors. All enjoyed it tremendously and nobody had
a problem understanding the story lines. My girlfriend and I compared
it to attending European opera or ballet, sung in foreign languages. We
met people in the audience who planned to see it a second time, and
heard about people who had seen the show three times already. Many
audience members both Asian and Caucasian had their pictures taken with
cast members in the lobby, smiles displaying the enjoyment of the
occasion.

Two years ago, I sat at audience development round table discussions
with the leading arts organizations of Vancouver. It was widely
understood that the Vancouver’s large Asian population was an untapped
market. But the talks were disproportionately represented by the faces
around the table, as only 2 or 3 out of 50 people attending the meeting
were Asian. And from the look and names of the people writing the
reviews of Terracotta Warriors and Asian Heritage Month events, all the
reviewers are white. No wonder the Vancouver media doesn’t understand
the show or Vancouver’s Asian population.

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