by Kaija Pepper

The action is drawn in clear, bold strokes: Opera Warriors is presented in a series of scenes and micro-scenes like panels in a graphic novel, telling a sprawling, five-act tale set in the world of Beijing Opera. Choreographer Xing Shimiao calls on more than 40 dancers from Huajin Dance Drama Ensemble of Shanxi Academy of Arts to muster their considerable skills in his highly theatrical mix of martial arts, acrobatics and traditional Chinese dance, with several balletic pas de deux used to convey romantic entanglements.

The Huajin ensemble was established in Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi province, in 2005, as a cultural envoy from China. Opera Warriors, directed by Wang Jinghua, is their second grand-scale dance drama (the first was Forbidden Fruit Under the Great Wall). Hong Kong’s Pik-Wah Li (who wrote the screenplay for the film Farewell My Concubine) was brought in as playwright for Opera Warriors, which was inspired by the memoir of Beijing Opera star Gai Jiaotian (1888-1971), known for his martial male or wusheng roles.

With plot summaries projected on large screens on either side of Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre stage before each act, the story of three talented wusheng actors was reasonably easy to follow. It begins in northern China in the early 1900s, with the trio training in their respective styles of wusheng: the long armour general on horseback, the warrior on foot and the clownish tumbler. It ends, after many plot developments, with the youngest, the tumbler (LvJianfei), discovering his strength in a new style of martial arts, called Monkey King, inspired by watching his pet monkey playing with a group of wild ones.

Costumed in gold armour, with long peacock feathers on top of his monkey-styled wig, Lv’s martial arts mid-air twists and turns with a long sword were powerful and precise, beautifully intertwined with the humorous cavorting of monkey moves. His character’s awakening to who he is in relation to his art and his life provided a satisfying finale to the epic drama.

Opera Warriors’ bigger-than-life aesthetic can be overdone — seemingly everyone had reason to do several six-o’clock stretches, foot to ear, even in intimate pas de deux. Intense facial expressions often telegraph a character’s state of mind, as do posture and gesture (a body bowed in sorrow, thumbs up to show approval). While I appreciate this is a deliberate choice, dramatic subtleties would surely enrich the pas de deux, in which it was clear that the dancers were projecting to the audience and not really communicating with each other. The duets between Lv and Yang Xuan — who played the perky Yan’er in red pants and soft shoes, with her hair in braids — were wonderful displays of acrobatic delight as she wrapped around him with her delicate razor-sharp legs and shapely, red-slippered feet; a soupçon of actorly realism would season the showcasing of their huge emotions with something less insistent, something each audience member could intuit for themselves. Also, the score by Fang Ming sounded too much like a generic soundtrack, Asian-styled, for a movie epic.

Many of Opera Warriors’ highlights are traditional elements, such as the women’s long sleeve dance, inspired by sword choreography, and the men who dance with four triangular flags on poles worn on their backs to indicate their imposing status as generals. The ensemble of men with red beards was apparently unusual in that in Beijing Opera beards are usually black (to indicate youth or middle age) or white (for old age). A beard’s movement patterns can show a character’s mood and personality, but even without that expert knowledge, there was delight in their colour and motion.

“Walking on stilts” involves male actors wearing tiny pointed wooden shoes, on which they stand on only two toes, in order to portray female roles. There was one line of slender men with cropped hair who danced on a fence, and a solo that took place on a u-shaped chair back. The gender of the petite soloist was not certain until the final bows, when he removed his ornate, feminine wig to huge applause. Both routines were a tour de force of balance, strength and style, as when the dancers slowly lowered themselves on one leg to the ground, the other extended in front, and then rose back up again, elegantly.

Opera Warriors, which premiered in Shanxi in 2011, has been performed more than 150 times in China and abroad (including Paris, Cannes, Singapore and Sydney). With massive sets by Gao Guangjian (including a moveable stage built onto the actual stage to create the theatre where the characters perform) and opulent costumes by Wang Qiuping (the Rich Ladies with their 1920s-styled dresses and shoes were gorgeous), production values are high in this unusual window into the world of Beijing Opera.


Huajin Dance Drama Ensemble in Opera Warriors Photo: Courtesy of Image China
Huajin Dance Drama Ensemble in Opera Warriors

Photo: Courtesy of Image China