Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Understanding Chinese Opera

I found this really interesting article on understanding Chinese Opera and because I don't believe one can separate Jackie's opera training from his performance on film I decided to share it with you.

The whole article can be read HERE. I highly recommend reading it in it's entirety.

This particular section really brings much of Jackie's on-screen performance to life in a new way if you apply it to his persona and choreography.

Semiotics BTW is the study of signs and symbols, their pathways and the relationship between them and their effects on people. SEMIOTICS

This notion of truthfulness or integrity is an important one, and one which I believe lies at the heart of understanding a Chinese opera performance. Truth is not something that is revealed from above, like Saul on the road to Damascus, or Moses at the burning bush, neither is it an abstraction - an activity of philosophers - it is a part of a discovery procedure which can be demonstrated in the conduct of the individual. Truth in a Taoist philosophy comes to an individual after a great deal of practice, training and polishing in those practices which are relevant to an individual's life. Truth is not based in Taoism (or Buddhism for that matter) on a distinction between good and evil (though the relationship is not necessarily one of difference as we might perceive it in western thinking) but on whether an individual is a practised individual in the ways of the world. In terms of Chinese opera then, the notion of truth is an important one, because it is this that is the measure of success of the integrity as a performer. When the performer is judged by an audience, by their company, by their teachers, it is on whether the performance is a 'true' one or not. This cannot be accounted for in western semiotics. It is the notion of t'i-jen, a realising, and witnessing of, 'truth' in performance. It involves a personal involvement, both critical and rational (intuitive and subjective), with meaning and significance of reality. The years and years of training involved in Chinese opera training (traditionally, and usually, one role-type for life) is a process of reaching towards a true performance. It is not, as is often thought in the west, an amount of time required to learn the many hundreds of conventions and movements associated with just one role type, but rather more a training in a perfection which is a celebration of the individual. And this is a concept of the Chinese opera performer rarely held by western observers who tend to see no further than the intricacies of the conventions, e.g., Scott and the many others who have written so voluminously and repetitively on Chinese theatre.

Think of Jackie's perfectionism in choreography and how he will persist until he gets it right (the most famous example is the scene from Dragon Lord) and how inseperable he is from his choreography. He, the performer is central to the performance and can't be separated from the intricacies of his choreography.

What this means is the centrality of the individual (the centrality of the performer) in the performance, and as a consequence any semiotics designed to analyze the construction of meanings in such a performance mode would need to centralize the performer, and you can't do that when the theory spends most of its time trying to keep the performer out of its space. It means, also, that the idea of truth is intimately and inseparably related to the notion of experience, and this in turn leads to the inseparability of words and actions in Chinese thought. There is no room here for a distinction between real and virtual systems, everything is of the real. The argument, then, is that knowledge is the beginning of action, and action is the completion of knowledge. No more is this clear than in seeing a Chinese opera performer at work, both in training, which never ends, and in production, which never closes.

Is this not a central concept to the path of Jackie's characters in his movies - there is the external conflict or test which the character responds to in one mindset(knowledge) and through action comes to a revelation or completion of knowledge (and by completion of knowledge I mean the completion of the test whereby good guy wins in the end).
If this sounds like a paradox, one of those enigmatic sayings from the east which have such a restricted place in western philosophy, then accept it for what it is - exactly that, and then re-orient your semiotics around this, rather than acting as if this seeming paradox (which isn't a paradox) doesn't exist. It won't be the first such one that you will come across in this enterprise. Central to any performance theory in Chinese opera, and hence what should be central to any semiotics of that performance practice, is that one of the major principles of human, individual conduct, is the full exercise of the mind and body. This requires harmonious relations between the two, and all other activities, and it is this that we see when we see Chinese opera actors at work. We are not just talking about mechanical skills, but a striving for perfection as an individual through the perfecting of the actor's skills. And if you say that this sounds rather too spiritual an activity for the sort of Chinese opera you might have seen, then my response would be, that the separation of the actor's skills from a spirituality, is a western abstraction, not a Chinese one. Spirituality in most forms of Chinese philosophy is well and truly anchored to the human world. We are not talking about some other-worldly spirituality here, but a celebration of the individual. Humanism unaffected, if you like, by the guilts of western religions.

In a human world, a world of the individual, it is the body and not a denial of the body which becomes important; In Chinese opera the skills with which the performers use their bodies stands testimony to this central feature of the performing art. This should not be denied in a semiotics not willing to incorporate bodies into its models of analysis and theory. Truth, in whatever guise, whether on or off stage, is discovered and tested in events and actions. These events and actions are at one and the same time, both theoretical and practical. We are dealing with a way of thinking that says that there is right because of wrong and vice versa; a theory based on relations of equality rather than difference. Again, this is a vital philosophical concept to build into a model, and one which does not exist in current western semiotics. Yin and Yang, for example, is a relation of harmony, not of difference, so the theory needs to be based on harmony and not as in the west on confrontation and contradiction. No element in the many dichotomies that exist in Chinese thought can exist by itself, they manifest themselves as a harmony. To achieve an understanding of this harmony as individual performers, say, the mind and the body needs to go through some quite severe discipline. It is this discipline that brings achievement, and which is why an actor can spend a life-time in the same role-type and still find things to bring to that role that are new, vital and individual to the performer, yet will stay within the very strict parameters set by tradition and teacher, etc., etc., for the movements and expressions permitted to that role. It is this that lies at the heart of the actor-audience relationship in Chinese opera and which would need to be incorporated into a semiotics that recognized the impossibility of separating the actor from the audience, the individual from the role and so on.

And isn't it that subtle and never thought of or studied connection between performer, performance and audience that draws people to Jackie's films in a way that is not easily explainable by the outward forms of the film?

This is absolutely true of Jackie as he is inseperable from his performance. In 'Jackie Chan - My Story' Michelle Yeoh comments that Jackie in real life is exactly as you see him on screen but that isn't entirely just what I mean. Can you imagine anyone BUT Jackie doing Jackie's moves? I know that Tony Jaa has made a good attempt at following Jackie but his choreography and performance of the choreography is inimically different. While you gasp at his (Tony Jaa's) acrobatic ability - you don't at the same time have the same sympathetic relationship with the character as you do with Jackie nor is Tony Jaa, performer as inseperable from the role as Jackie is.

And isn't it this interplay or silent communication through the truth in the performance that draws people to Jackie's movies?
(It is the inseparability that Brecht misunderstood in Chinese opera, and which caused Grotowski to abandon Chinese performance techniques for similar misunderstood reasons). When an actor, for example, is meant to be very drunk and riding a horse which is not drunk, and that actor has to show drunkenness in his upper body and sobriety in his legs as the horse, you have levels of skills which foreground the very notion of the individual, not denying itself or the role. The conventions in Chinese opera are not distancing mechanisms, as some seem to think, but an expression of a reality, a harmony, of individual and role which is a microcosm of a harmony of the world.

The one question that always intrigues me is - why do so many people from so many different walks of life and age groups find Jackie so fascinating. In truth his movies are not THAT amazing often lacking particularly in terms of plot/story and yet they hold the power to fascinate (in the true meaning of 'attract strongly or enchant by charming abilities') the viewer.

Jackie's incredible grace and artistry in choreography simply doesn't quite fully explain the universalism of his attraction to such a wide range of viewers. So after reading the above article I have to ask ... is it that expression of truth and silent communication between performer (Jackie) and audience that is innate to Chinese Opera that people respond to on a subliminal level making them return to his films over and over?

Because it cannot be denied that Jackie has the power to move people and give people hope, determination and courage through his films even when these qualities and themes are not overtly part of the plot.


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