Mon, May 25, 2009 - Page 13 News List

[ THE WEEKENDER ] The virtues of innovation and minimalism

By Ian Bartholomew and Diane Baker  /  STAFF REPORTERS


It is a rare thing for an executive producer to receive a standing ovation in a theater, but Kenneth Pai’s production of the classic kun opera (崑劇) The Jade Hairpin (玉簪記) was, above all else, about his passion and new vision for this ancient operatic form.

On Friday, he brought an audience at the National Theater that ranged from high school kids to elderly opera aficionados to its feet when he appeared at the end of the curtain call. During the interval, Pai had been virtually mobbed by girls wearing the distinctive green-and-black uniforms of the Taipei Municipal First Girls’ Senior High School (北一女中), who were there in force.

Pai had set out to make kun opera chic and cool and just good plain fun: The Jade Hairpin achieved all of these. Pai’s new aesthetic for kun is difficult to pin down. There are no startling departures from convention. It is more about overall quality, a look, a knowing sophistication that immediately announced itself as something new and stylish.

From the opening sequence, the production values were evident in the sophisticated lighting, the simple, elegant set, the magnificently understated costumes and the discipline of the chorus line. Considerable attention to technical details, from the sound quality to the use of the follow spot, contributed to the overall effect, and this care is something that other local productions could learn from.

The two young stars, Shen Fengying (沈豐英) and Yu Jiulin (�?L), were in fine form, and despite the archaic manners of an opera style that dates back almost five centuries, they managed to prove that young love is a constant, however it is expressed.

In a scene in which the two young characters get to know one another other while playing the zither, their elaborate courtesies are a source of humor, but this never undermined the beauty of the music — provided by a Tang Dynasty zheng (箏) performed by Li Xiangting (李祥霆) — or the poetry of the lyrics. This balancing act was maintained throughout the nearly three-hour performance.

The show finished with a scene that combined complex choreographed movements to imitate, on an empty stage, a dangerous meeting on a turbulent river, and some passionate arias in which the love birds pledge their eternal love to each other.

One very small fly in the ointment was the quality of the English surtitles. Although superior to what is generally seen in the few traditional productions that sport English surtitles, the quality was uneven and certainly could have done with thorough editing.

Upstairs in the Experimental Theater, Lin Wen-chung’s (林文中) latest work, Small Songs, kept dancers rooted to a confined space, much like his WCdance troupe’s premiere piece, Small.

Instead of a Plexiglas cube, however, his design team came up with a rectangular platform.

Lin has made a virtue out of minimalism. He has a real flair for reducing the space and time needed to convey his ideas while giving you richly layered, finely nuanced works. His works bring to mind Persian miniatures, those small worlds that mix reality and dreams and become more complex the longer you look at them.

While Lin is capable of filling an entire stage, the score for Small Songs was an intriguing mix of songs by the Mexican-American singer Lhasa de Sela, P.S. I Love You from the film of the same name, Love You to Death from Cape No. 7 (海角七號), a nanguan (南管) piece, excerpts from Handel and Mozart and Song to the Moon from the Czech opera Ruslaka.

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