The Guo Guang Theater Company (國光劇團) is a bastion of traditional theater in Taiwan, but under the inspired directorship of Wang An-chi (王安祈), it has also emerged as a fearless innovator. Flowing Sleeves and Rouge (水袖與胭脂) is the third work that it has premiered as part of the Taiwan International Festival of the Arts (台灣國際藝術節), and once again it is taking Beijing opera into new and challenging areas of artistic endeavor.
Beijing opera is not particularly known for being introspective or self-referential, but Flowing Sleeves and Rouge aspires to be both. It is the last of the “actors trilogy,” a series of works by Wang that look behind the colorful facade of the operatic stage to the creative impulses of the performing artists.
According to Wang, the inspiration for Flowing Sleeves came from the Romance of the Flowers in the Mirror (鏡花緣), a fantasy novel written by Li Ruzhen (李汝珍), completed in 1827. In this story, the hero travels to many fascinating countries, rather like Gulliver in his travels, visiting the Country of Women, the Country of Gentlemen and many others.
“I imagined a ‘country of the theater,’” Wang said, “a country in which people are either passionate fans of the theater like me, or they are actors, and where every action and word is performed as though on stage.”
Wang draws heavily on the story of Yang Yuhuan (楊玉環), the consummate musician and dancer who was also consort to the Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang dynasty (唐玄宗). Although the liaison almost brought the dynasty to an end, the relationship between emperor and consort, built on their profound knowledge of music and theater, lives on as a central trope of the Chinese arts.
Wang said she used the character of Yang, who was abandoned by her lover as the price he had to pay to retain the loyalty of his army, as a means of exploring the feelings of a performance artist. “[The character] Yang is seeking an inner peace, and [in the play] I have included many quotations from classical literature. But this is just a tool of creativity, and is not intended as a reinterpretation of tradition.”
Taking the role of Yang is the diva of Beijing opera Wei Hai-min (魏海敏), who has been an intrepid explorer of the outer limits of Chinese opera technique. While the current production is relatively conventional in the manner of its presentation, the creative issues it grapples with are anything but. Although Wei has created some of the definitive images of Yang in traditional productions, she has consistently pushed for more nuanced interpretation of characters within Chinese opera, and Wang’s new work plays directly to Wei’s strengths in presenting complex emotions through the heavy makeup and stylistic devices of Beijing opera.
Wang said that in calling the show Flowing Sleeves and Rouge she was highlighting the way art “conceals,” and through concealing outward appearances, can be a way of revealing inner truths.
“Acting is about entering the mind of a character, and this can be a path of healing,” Wang said.