Revitalised artistic tradition roars back into action
The lion dance has a deeply rooted and diverse heritage in Guangdong, including the lost form of lion dance theatre. Like the familiar performance of our times, the ancient theatrical tradition combined movement, percussion, kung fu acrobatics, and elements of feng shui. In addition, it served as a storyteller, enabling tales from classic novels, such as the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, to be turned into dramatic form.
In a fascinating contemporary revival of this colourful performing art, Hong Kong choreographer Daniel Yeung brings together lion dancers and an array of local artistic talents to retell one of the adventures of Three Kingdoms hero Guan Yu. Drawing on classical lion dance, experiential theatre, modern dance, experimental music, and multimedia arts, the super-creative ensemble imaginatively restores and reshapes a forgotten art into a captivating performance for today.
Choreographer & Performance:
Meet-the-artist session after each performance
Text: Elbe Lau
Photos: Daniel Yeung and Kwok’s Kung Fu & Dragon Lion Dance Team
The perceived grandeur of the king of beasts, not to mention its character, is hardly manifested in traditional lion dance performances today, which are usually staged on festive or celebratory occasions. On the other hand, in lion dance fight scenes in movies featuring the kung fu master Wong Fei-hung, the lions shuffle between the “plum blossom piles” and put the animal’s magnificence on full display, but aesthetics and expression of inner emotions are lacking in such instances of appearance. This November, the New Vision Arts Festival is going to present the world premiere of Guan Yu’s Ride of 1,000 Miles – Experimental Multimedia “Lion Dance Theatre”. What is Lion Dance Theatre? How could the sturdy and fierce lion be personified and become a hero in the treacherous world of Romance of the Three Kingdoms? How could the dance demonstrate, through the moves, different personalities of the characters, surpassing their established images and delving into their inner worlds?
Lions on stage
Before exploring the answers to these questions, we can first learn more about the image of the lion in drama. Among different genres in the Japanese Kabuki, there are a series of performances collectively called Shakkyou-mono, in which the protagonists are usually lions. Lion in the Mirror, or Kagamijishi in Japanese, is a short documentary directed by master filmmaker Ozu Yasujiro in the 1930s, starring the famous actor Onoe Kikugoro VI, who is adept at playing both tachiyaku, male characters in Kabuki, and onnagata, female characters in the drama. In the story, Onoe plays both the fierce lion ghost and a young girl called Yayoi, who dances in a ceremony celebrating the New Year. When she picks up the lion head prop from the altar, the lion’s soul possesses her, who is then unwillingly dragged to the backstage. When she re-emerges, she has already become a majestic lion ghost chasing two butterflies. The drama, incorporating music and dance, has a well-developed plot and a mature drama structure.
In the system of Chinese Opera, Shao Opera is well known for monkey plays, including such popular works as Monkey King Thrice Beats the Bony Ghost. Both apes and humans are primates, and thus imitating monkeys is an easier task. The lion, which belongs to the cat family, calls for more careful thoughts to turn it into a subject of imitation in theatre. To accentuate the agility and mightiness of the lion, the lion dancers have to exhibit the animal’s eight variations of form: happiness, anger, sadness, joy, activeness, idleness, surprise and doubt. Among different genres of opera, there seems to be no lion-centred repertoires. In order to learn more about lion dance theatre, I have talked with Andy Kwok Man-lung, the Lion Dance Theatre Consultant of Guan Yu’s Ride of 1,000 Miles.
Andy Kwok Man-lung (left) & his disciple Steven Cheng
The marked distinction between lion dance and Chinese Opera
According to Andy Kwok Man-lung, Head Coach of the Kwok’s Kung Fu & Dragon Lion Dance Team, the traditional lion dance is an auxiliary training to kung fu, and hence always regarded as a form of martial arts independent of the opera system.(Note 1)Unlike Chinese Opera which mainly happen on the stage, lion dance is usually casual, mostly improvised and performed on the streets. As the literati are rarely involved in the creative process of lion dance theatre (or lion dance performances with well-developed storylines), the tradition has long been an oral legacy, largely devoid of written records.
Since the ancient times, most of the lion dance theatre has been based on stories from Three Kingdoms. “There are connotations underlying the colours of the lion heads,” Andy said. “For example, the black colour on Zhang Fei’s lion head represents bravery; red on Guan Yu’s represents benevolence; the colourful one on Liu Bei’s represents wisdom and yellow on Huang Zhong’s represents loyalty.” In recent times, the lion dance has achieved better development in Malaysia than in Hong Kong. Malaysian lion dance master Lim Meng Kok, also known as the “Old Master Q” in the industry, has once told Andy that, apart from stories from Three Kingdoms, the repertoire of lion dance theatre also includes Lying Down on the Ice to Get Carp for His Stepmother, Kong Rong Giving Up Pears, Xue Rengui Winning the Battle with Three Shots of Arrow, Two Lions Celebrating Joy and The Gold Hidden in a Dead Tree.
Master Kwok emphasises that all attempts to modernise lion dancing ought to ensure that the lion comes across as agile and mighty.
Not only gymnastics or a mere appendage of martial arts
Since the 1980s, lion dance has developed into a widely recognised sporting event in Hong Kong and local lion dance athletes have often won international contests. For example, Kwok’s Kung Fu & Dragon Lion Dance Team, led by Andy, was crowned the champion of the Indonesia Lion and Dragon Dance World Competition in 2016. So, does lion dance emphasise difficulty and skills to the extent that artistic qualities are ignored? Andy, intent on alchemising the skills into art, cleared up my misunderstanding. “A fascinating lion dance performance has the power to delude the audience into feeling that the lions are alive and can interact with the audience,” he said. The bearing and mien of the lions, music, arrangements of the performance, and artistic appeal are all judging criteria in lion dance competitions.(Note 2)For years, Andy has been open-minded enough to work with artists from different sectors so as to broaden the public’s scope of imagination of lion dance. For example, he has mixed lion dance with hip-hop and used lion bodies that glisten with iridescent LED lighting. Fond of magic, he even once played with the idea of creating a “lion-gician”! He was eagerly awaiting the opportunity to work with the famous Hong Kong choreographer Daniel Yeung in this year’s New Vision Arts Festival to explore the possibilities of traditional lion dance.
Daniel Yeung, Artistic Director of Guan Yu’s Ride of 1,000 Miles – Experimental Multimedia “Lion Dance Theatre”
Restoring and reshaping the forgotten lion dance theatre with contemporary techniques
Daniel Yeung, an art graduate and a self-taught dancer, was twice awarded scholarship to study choreography in the Netherlands and the UK. He lamented that Hong Kong people usually talk about contemporary art with reference to Western thoughts and culture only, overlooking our own advantages. A case in point is lion dance, which was brought to Hong Kong and Southeast Asia because of the Cultural Revolution. Seeing the high level of local lion dancers, Daniel felt a duty to “contemporise” our traditional culture so that it could connect with today’s audiences. In recent years, he has been creating a series of lion-themed dances, including The Lion Rock!, an ArtSnap outdoor performance in New Vision Arts Festival 2016. Recognising his potential from the dance, the Festival decided to further support him in extending his creation, the result being Guan Yu’s Ride of 1,000 Miles.
Choosing the scene of Guan Yu’s Ride from Romance of the Three Kingdoms has not only followed the traditions of lion dance theatre but also benefitted the choreography and storytelling. The choreography became easier because of the action scenes like “beheading six generals at five passes”. The emotional richness between characters allowed room for soul-stirring performances, such as Guan Yu’s gratitude to Cao Cao for Cao’s admiration for his ability, as well as the “bromance” between Liu Bei and Guan Yu. Daniel expressed his doubt about why Guan Yu had to read the Spring and Autumn Annals on his journey of seeing his sisters-in-law back home. This courageous and loyal general was after all a human with flesh and blood, so would he also have been troubled by sexual desire?
In terms of content, Daniel has broken free of the traditional linear narrative technique and instead wanders between fantasy and reality, presenting the characters’ inner thoughts with various images. Since most of the performers only trained in contemporary dance, they, in order to prepare for the performance, have been training with Steven Cheng, Andy’s disciple, to learn the basics of lion dance. They will participate in performing difficult yet extraordinary lion dance moves such as “human pyramid” and “plum blossom piles”, and their performance will also contain parkour elements.
As for the music, in addition to the gong, drum and cymbal of traditional lion dance, Andy has tried adding the bamboo flute, erhu, suona horn and other instruments. Daniel himself has tried integrating electronic and contemporary Chinese music into lion dance works. This time, they have invited GayBird, a member of the Hong Kong famous music production label People Mountain People Sea, to make more new attempts. As for the cross-media creative team consisting of SunFool Lau and others, how will their visual effects present an alternative, refreshing lion dance theatre? Daniel preferred to keep it mysterious but said that the rare ‘big-head living Buddha’ of lion dance will re-appear on stage. Let’s see how this arhat sent by the Buddha will subdue the lions and add a sense of humour to the new Three Kingdoms story.
Steven Cheng (left) will perform with the Kwok’s Kung Fu & Dragon Lion Dance Team the “plum blossom piles” stunt and war drum sequences. (conceptual image)
This article first appeared in Performing Arts Review, No. 310, October 2018.
Translated by Vane Communications
1. Likewise, some points out that Cantonese Opera and the lion dance have no connections at all. There is no such habit of showcasing lion dance in Cantonese Opera performances. For more details, see Jerry Keung’s I Am Not a Master, Hong Kong: Joint Publishing, p. 202.
2. The judging criteria of lion dance competitions of the Hong Kong Chinese Martial Arts Dragon and Lion Dance Association:http://www.hkycac.org/img/p/download/zh_hk/grading-standard_lion_optional.pdf