25 July 2014

Peking Opera and More ...

Entertainment in China. Entertainment for tourists. An assortment of cultural experiences in March of 2014.
The story begins
Peking Opera is a highly stylized theatre medium. Doesn't everyone know that before they go? Apparently not. The traditional stories and characters are well-known to native audiences, although it seems that performances are not attracting the younger generations so much. Our audience was perhaps half tourists and half Beijing residents. I'd been forewarned that Chinese audiences were restless and could be distracting.

The beautifully costumed performers gave us a one-hour rendition of a classic story; the colourful, intricate makeup and masks were dazzling. So foreign to our eyes and ears. The costumes and the movements were of great interest to me, the one and only time I would ever have this experience. But from the beginning, it was not the Chinese who distracted us. Some of the tourist audience began an exodus quite soon, a few people at a time the music and characters were too foreign for them lurching up in the dark, shuffling their belongings, stepping on someone's feet, yapping out loud. Travel buddy and I became (a) increasingly indignant and (b) deeply mortified at the boorishness of fellow westerners.
Xu Chenghei, Peking Opera: The Performance behind the Painted Faces p. 80
Nonetheless, when the lead female singer began, it was rather shattering. I can't think of another word for that fricative, ear-piercing voice. Did we leave? No way. The performers were doing what they do best and deserved our respect; it's not like we were trapped for hours on end. Quite an experience, alright ... black eye, you yahoos. Presumably they wouldn't be so disruptive at home. Or maybe they would.

One evening we saw the Tang Dynasty Show at a dinner theatre in Xi'an (home of the Terra Cotta Warriors). Also featuring a Special Dumpling Dinner: no-one was going to walk out on this one! A multitude of servers hustled back and forth through the "Ancient Capital Theatre" venue with stacked steamers. As we sampled about thirteen varieties of ornately created dumplings, their poetic names were flashed on a giant video screen. "Sailing boat-shaped steamed Jiaozi" was one. Don't ask, I wish I'd made a note of them all. After dinner, traditional music and dancing entertained us. Lovely dancers and a woman on a zither-like instrument, also an amazing guy playing a strange horn, great fun.

Without a doubt, the highlight was Impression Liu San Jie in Yangshuo by the Li River. Created by the man who did China's Olympic opening ceremonies, much anticipation on my part. Yangshuo itself is a small town in terms of Chinese population, a domestic tourist destination because of its unusual scenery. Hundreds (thousands?) of dramatic limestone peaks (karsts) punctuate the countryside in the Guilin and Li River region.
Yangshuo, photo Wikipedia
To reach the outdoor show area was quite a trek, along with huge throngs of people; apparently every night of the week is the same. It was the only time we experienced such an intimidating mass of people. The real threat of rain deterred many of our group. Plastic rain covers were provided by the venue but happily, no downpour. The bad news was that cameras were almost useless in capturing the scenes.
  What a reward ... mastery of illusion! The performance was staged on a "lake" predicated on mind-bending, optical effects. Neither before nor after was there a hint of what would or did unfold. Hundreds of performers made patterns across and over the lake as a female singer played out daily vignettes of river people. Her voice was a pleasure. Being subsumed into the extravagant breadth and dimensions of music, costumes, movement, was everything. Truly a unique spectacle. Post-facto, I realized we'd been sitting, watching, under one of the striking peaks that loomed over us. In my peripheral vision, in the dark, I imagined it to be a large tree. Such a tantalizing mystery how the man created it all, whether the "lake" was real, how the actors could move on it, how the necessary "back stage" was so hidden, and so on.
Later our guide Michael told us there are six hundred in the cast; most come from neighbouring farms and are paid a pittance. Next day we were promised a revealing daylight view of the "lake" site while on a river cruise. The river master foiled us. Needing to control excessive water flow, he prevented all boats from going upriver. Illusion intact!
Numerous shall I say lesser entertainments were on the agenda during the 24-day tour of China.
Acrobats in Shanghai; Yangtze cruise ship performers; the daily graceful exercises performed en masse in parks; the celebrated Hong Kong skyline laser show (NOT! ... cancelled at the last minute because it was Earth Hour!). Instead, travel buddy and I lucked into a wild phenomenon, a majestic show by nature herself.

Exploring the 42nd floor of our hotel, the thunderstorm that threatened all day finally exploded. There we were on an enclosed catwalk between two towers glass floor, glass windows, glass ceiling, completely surrounded by the flash and deafening noise and vibration of the storm. One mother of a storm. Half scared to death! Totally thrilling moments and again, impossible to capture on film. Beats a laser show any night.
A photo from our hotel room will have to do ... before the storm!
© 2014 Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved.

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