It never ceases to amaze me that dancers I know well sometimes change in performance to become beings I barely recognize. They animate space, suspend time and grow larger than life. Their bodies can speak, sing, fly or hold perfectly still. Their spirits flow out even as they draw to themselves the energy that surrounds them – my energy and that of others who are watching. Together we witness transformation and feel ourselves change. Such are my responses to the programs presented by William Lau (Little Pear Garden Collective) and Sashar Zarif (Dancers for Peace 2002) on the winter’s first snowy weekend. Getting there was hard, being there was unforgettable.
William Lau’s training in classical ballet and Chinese dance led him to specialize in Dan (female) roles, which served as the focal point for Jing Ju/The Secrets Unveiled. Jing Ju means Peking opera, the classical theatre form that combines song, dance, pantomime, martial arts and poetry. Lau aptly calls it “one of the world’s theatrical treasures”. Born in Hong Kong and brought up in Montréal, he pursued his quest to learn the disappearing art of men performing Dan roles, thanks to his language skills, entrepreneurial savvy and timely support from the Canada Council. In the past fifteen years he has developed far more than prodigious knowledge of the stylized movement, voice, acting, costume and make-up of Peking opera. His efforts have spanned China and Canada, making it possible for artists and audiences to cross cultural divides.
For this program Lau brought a distinguished guest from China, his teacher Song Chang-Rong, who in his late sixties still performs young women’s roles with the refinement of decades of stage experience. He is one of the last male actors to do so, for current Chinese practice is that women play Dan roles. He opened the program as Lady Yang, who goes with her entourage to a rendezvous with the emperor. She enters like a living sculpture with her layers of embroidered silk, headdress sprouting a garden of pompoms and painted face with sharply lifted eyebrows. Contemplating the moonlit evening, she moves from one elegant pose to the next, gesturing with her long expressive “water” sleeves. Her singular appearance is framed by a shimmering ensemble of palace maidens dressed in light blue, choreographed by Cynthia Tsang for eight young dancers from the Canadian Chinese Folk-Dance Institute. Behind them stand six lantern bearers (York University students), who complement the immense backdrop representing the Hundred Flowers Pavilion. The entire scene celebrates the charms of an all-female gathering.
Lau and three Toronto-based Peking opera stars played Dan roles in the next excerpts. Sheng Li, Zhang Lili and Zhang Yanyan are women who trained and performed professionally in China until they moved here recently to work with opera companies in Toronto. I was told that it was a coup for Lau to bring them together on the same stage. Their roles, powerfully portrayed and lavishly costumed, provided further variations on the theme of remarkable women.
In an episode from the opera “Fiery Steed”, Lau plays the slender, reserved lady called Huang Guiying. Sheng Li as her maid Mei Ying persuades her with some difficulty to go walking in a garden. The maid bounds about, thrilled by the qualities of various flowers she evokes through pantomime. Some of her poses seem slightly alarming to her mistress, as when she drops to the ground and looks up fetchingly. The pairing of these roles is fascinating, especially the highly inflected dialogue, filled with irony and quick up-takes. Only when the vignette ended did I remember that one role was played by a man and the other by a woman.
Zhang Lili, as the has-been concubine Mei Fei, used a vertical, contained modesty to suggest her broken pride and loneliness. By contrast, Zhang Yanyan sailed serenely across a misty stage, empty save for a scattering of large abstract flowers, in her role as Heavenly Maiden.
The program concluded with an exciting scene from “Mu Ke Fortress – A Strange Marriage Proposal”, featuring warriors in full regalia with headdresses topped by swirling pheasant feathers. The female warrior Mu Guiying (Song Chang-Rong) briefly does stylized combat with the young male general Yang Zongbao (William Lau), but having defeated him she asks him to marry her. Viewers were enchanted by this alliance of super heroes and yet another version of gender-bending. Their laughter indicated that it didn’t much matter whether or not they could understand the text. The evening I attended, the Betty Oliphant Theatre was absolutely packed as was the Walker Court the previous Sunday afternoon when Lau and Song presented a costume demonstration and cameo performances at the Art Gallery of Ontario. William Lau knows well how to honour master and tradition while building a new contemporary audience.
Circle of Sacred
Dancers for Peace is a collective of Toronto-based dancers of diverse cultural backgrounds who decided to join forces in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001, thanks to the leadership of Sashar Zarif, a choreographer and teacher originally from Azerbaijan. Last December, I was stunned by their performance of solo works based on ritual and spirituality. The convergence of their second program, Circle of Sacred, with the Ju Jing/The Secrets Unveiled program distressed me until I realized there was a way to do it all. By giving myself what amounted to a weekend retreat, I managed to see both performances and take six workshops led by the Dancers for Peace 2002 artists. It was a gift to experience their movement worlds before seeing them the next day in the intimacy of Harbourfront Centre’s Studio Theatre.
Children from the workshops joined Norma Araiza on stage to open with a Mexican indigenous prayer, a salutation to the four cardinal points. Gathering the elements of earth, water, air and fire, they moved silently in sustained phrases of reaching out, kneeling, rising, rippling arms like a bird’s wings and capturing a spark in a hand clap. They began facing the audience and then slowly repeated the entire sequence to one side, to the back and to the other side, finally turning to face front. This prelude of solemn concentration prepared the way for six works which came from divergent sources but shared a common purpose, to explore the ties between dancing and systems of belief.
Isaac Akrong in “Akom”, a Ghanaian possession dance, sang of the need for world peace as he entered wearing a brilliantly-coloured woven textile. He soon removed this garment to become transformed into a fiercely intent Akan priest in wide grass skirt, dipping his switch-like brush into a gourd of powder to purify the corners of his dancing space. Gradually he summoned the spirits of specific ancestors and animals. He then whirled toward a trance-like state, rolling to the ground in slow motion until the moment of suspended time ended. Yasmina Ramsay in “Zaar” tapped into the swinging, circling motions of North African women’s rituals. These dances use rhythms connected with various genies; once the right one is found, the afflicted person must use it to squeeze her whirling head to find release. Between these two powerful visions of altered states, D. Gunaseelan danced “Varnam”, which exemplified the formal gesture code and devotional attitude of South Indian bharatanatyam in its invocation of Lord Siva and the cosmic dance. A tall man with huge arm span, he is certainly one of the most imposing practitioners of this beautiful system of movement knowledge I have ever seen.
The second part of Circle of Sacred was programmed equally sensitively. “Dear Deer” was performed side-by-side with highly synchronized energy by Norma Araiza and her musician brother Jorge Araiza. Inspired by the Yaqui deer dance of Sonora in their native Mexico, it summons the spirit of the sacred animal through lifted walking steps and alert looking and listening. Norma wore the deer head above her own and a wrapping of delicate cocoon shakers on her ankles, while Jorge played hand instruments and drum. Elena Quah followed with two interconnected dances of the Dai minority in southwestern China. Resembling Thai dance in its precise hand gestures, the “Water” dance showed a maiden bathing and playing in a stream to suggest the benevolence of this element so crucial to all that lives. “Peacock” was an eloquent evocation of the sacred bird symbolic of luck and prosperity that also plays in water. To end, Sashar Zarif offered “Beloved”, based on Sufi traditional dancing. In a low crouching position he began by making the gentlest whisper of sound from beads that ring the inside of his large hand drum. By stages he rose, chanted, played rhythms and finally opened up into full-scale whirling. His radiant flowing revolutions embodied fully the ideal that all can be as one.