THE young Jet Lis were in their element on stage. They displayed all the controlled grace of the Chinese wushu champion and action star – but with the added dimension of nature-inspired dance choreography, they seemed, at times, to lift the martial art to a higher level.
Control ruled the night: With wushu training under their belt,
the dancers leaped, tumbled and cartwheeled across
the stage with grace and beauty.
– Photos by SIA HONG KIAU / The Star
Qi: A Dance of Wushu by the Lee Wushu Arts Theatre was inspired by the power of nature in the form of qi (energy) and the ancient Chinese belief in the power of the five basic elements that are said to compose the universe: metal, wood, water, fire and earth.
The programme was divided into nine parts: Origination of Heaven and Earth; Realisation of Truth in the Grounds of Cultivation; To Seek Direction from Where He is Led; Fire, Earth; The Omnipresence of Yin and Yang; Metal, Wood; the Cessation of Yang and the Emergence of Yin; The Union of Heaven and Man; and Flow of Qi.
The 80-minute contemporary Chinese dance performance had every element of Chinese culture you could think of in it – a little bit of Chinese dance (with flags, ribbons and fans), modernised classical Chinese music as well as Chinese opera, poetry, and most prominently, wushu (both bare fisted and with weapons). All these were linked together by the language of dance.
The concept seemed very philosophical and ethereal. It was based on the transmission and convergence of qi that affects the balance of yin and yang (the “male” and “female” aspects of qi) energies, thus producing, integrating and dispersing the five elements. Wow. All the philosophy was too deep for me, so I resorted to simply enjoying the kung fu flicks, wonderful costumes and music that was put together.
It was clear that the prerequisite for these performers is strong fundamentals in the art of wushu. Their troupe’s founder had, after all, started as a wushu practitioner first. Lee Swee Seng had been practising wushu for 10 years when he decided that he would not limit himself to the martial arts; he explored Chinese opera and dance – the latter interest surely a natural result of wushu’s graceful movements.
Since founding the troupe in 1998, Lee has produced Wushu and Dance (2001), Wushu and Dance United (2003) and The King’s Sword (2005). This production, which was in celebration of the troupe’s 10th anniversary, was put together with the assistance of dancers and choreographers Albert Tiong (based in Singapore) and Mark Yin Hao (based in Shanghai), who served as art instructors.
Wushu was the strong foundation on which Qi was based. The dancers’ lean bodies executed the martial arts movements with an authenticity that comes only with years of tough training, and with a beauty that dancers trying to fake wushu movements could not possibly achieve.
The integration of acrobatic moves such as cartwheels, handsprings and such was no surprise; these are customarily used in martial arts as they emphasise strength, flexibility and acrobatic and balance skills. What surprised me were the perfect tours en l’air (literally, “turn in the air”) executed by the male dancers, none of whom had, as far as I know, any ballet foundation at all. Tours en l’air is a jump into the air with, typically for a male, a full 360° rotation. And if my eyes did not deceive me, some of the dancers even achieved an amazing double rotation (720°)!
The only element in the programme that jarred was a character presentation taken from a Chinese opera. A roaring man tried his best to look and sound fierce without much success. There’s a good reason performers of such character roles traditionally wear masks with exaggerated features on stage: conviction.
Okay, this didn’t work: Man trying to act fierce. The character masks traditionally used in Chinese opera would have worked.
When the performers stuck to combining wushu and dance, they were magnificent. Qi is a reminder that, with strong fundamentals in any traditional or classical art form, versatility comes naturally.
Here’s to even better and more sophisticated works from Lee and his troupe – hopefully, while remaining steadfast to their Chinese roots.