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Chun Yi at The Coliseum


Ray Roderick - Writer/Director
Su Shijin - Director
Gao Liting - Playwright and Planner
Zheng Bing - Composer
Han Lixun - Set Designeri
Wang Ruiguo - Lighting Designer
Song Li - Costume Designer

The Coliseum, London, 7 August 2009

Let Broadway director Ray Roderick set the scene and summarise the story... [links are integral in Musical Pointers reports].

It raises profound theological and political issues which we will touch on below, but first let us say that this is terrific musical/dance theatre, as endorsed by members of the surprisingly small audience, some of whom, with us, took the trouble to speak to representatives of The Coliseum afterwards to convey our appreciation and learn that, despite a raft of ** put-downs by the influential paper-press, the bookings are picking up for next (the last) week.

It has a fairy-tale format, the simple story and disturbing underlying ethos of Kung-Fu (far more complex than we'd known, seventeen of its forms incorporated in the choreography) expressed in highly elaborated dance based on the physical movements of martial art and circus.

The framework is the telling of a life story, from reluctant child initiate to Temple Abbot. The theme is the progress towards inner strength to create peace and harmony around, the development of formalised physical skills towards "a message of peace and harmony for the world". Abegnation teaches acquisition of "vital life energy", jeopardised by "ego" which is briefly seduced by temptation - a woman trapeze artist here - followed by remorse and rededication to complete becoming "a warrior for peace"... The narration is spoken by a venerable monk accompanied by an excellent boy soprano singing in Chinese.

The picture is of an all-male society which denies sex. Women have a very subsidiary role in this world; the mother sacrificing her young son (his fearfulness and reluctance to leave her really the only human moment in the whole show); the episode of sexual temptation; and the funeral of the mother, attended by a few women - another of Chun Yi's rites of passage... The whole ethos of Kung Fu, if this is a fair introduction to it, is highly suspect as an ideal for the modern world.

Many of the performers, we are told, had studied Kung Fu for most of their lives. There are no "stars" as in western ballet and opera - the role of Chun Yi himself is taken by a number of artists with particular specialised Kung Fu skills. The troupe includes phenomenal child gymnasts who seize attention with their every appearance. *

The music has, besides the boy singer, "live" instrumental playing, on drums, huge wind instruments (do they have a similar role to the Swiss alphorns?) and the lovely toned Muyu, a Buddhist tool upon which monks knock whilst meditating.

These front a recorded orchestral score by Zheng Bing, a cosmopolitan, westernised Chinese composer; people will hear his idiom as Hollywood-Chinese, if that is the right way to describe it. We had no difficulty in taking it, and indeed the whole show, on its own terms. You can follow this useful link and listen to Zheng Bing's quarter hour Fourth Erhu Concerto, which will give you a fair sample of his orchestral writing.

Just two criticisms, one minor and the other important. The programme book is properly informative and lavishly illustrated, unfortunately with clumsy double-page spreads. The photos would have been better on single pages, postcard style format. The sound transmission of the recorded score could be better than at the Coliseum. Ours were good seats, at the side of the middle block in the stalls, but the sound there appeared to come entirely from the right side (a not uncommon experience with amplified sound at concerts). With space to move at the interval, all was fine from central seats.

Finally a word on the production, choreography, staging and lighting, all of them exceptional and far more sophisticated and accomplished than most you will encounter in opera/ballet productions in London. The co-ordination of everything is a marvel and many of the stage pictures are unforgettable. In due course, I guess, there will be a DVD; it should be stunning on the largest of HD-screens, but, meanwhile, there is just one more week to see at The Coliseum a show which premiered in 2004 and has been seen by over two million people at the Red Theatre in Beijing. Leave your prejudices at home; go and enjoy!

Peter Grahame Woolf

* - - an unindividualistic society - - these performers have achieved ‘perfection’ free from any sense of self-importance - - MusicOMH

- - when did you last see bubbles on stage? Express