Concordia theatre student Natasha Perry-Fagant is playing the role of the goddess Thetis in the Theatre Department’s upcoming production of Peleus and Thetis. In this blog entry, she recounts the story of how she went from being a sceptical observer of Chinese opera to a passionate practitioner, seduced by its unique styles and demands.
Chinese opera. From practically my first day in Concordia’s Department of Theatre, the university’s exchange program with the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts (NACTA), which had taken place for the first time in 2009 (the year prior), seemed to be one of the main activities that the department was highlighting.
Chinese opera was what all the professors were discussing but I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. Very much into musical theatre (like every high school theatre student), I’d been unimpressed to hear no singing of any sort in the small demonstration given to us. “How can they call this opera?” I scoffed to myself while watching a group of students perform a complex choreography. Little did I know that in just one year, Chinese opera would reappear on my radar and seduce me with its beauty.
After completing my first year of studies, humbler than I had started, I decided to enrol in the Chinese opera or Jingju performance class. I knew I wanted to start my mornings with a movement class and it was the only one that fit into my timetable.
Soon after the course began, it struck me how physically demanding the class was. Every lesson started with at least 15 minutes of partner stretching exercises in which we’d contort our legs into unimaginable positions to eventually improve the extension of our kicks, which we’d proceed to do for the rest of the class. If we were lucky, we might have a short interlude of acrobatic rolling, which at least used different muscles in our bodies. My response to any inquiry about my well-being was always “everything hurts.” I thought my body would never again be in so much pain as it was that semester.
That was, of course, until I went to China. Captivated by the physical challenge that my Jingju performance class had offered me, and the sense of satisfaction I felt after I’d mastered a movement, I decided to participate in the department’s second exchange program with NACTA. In the summer of 2011, I spent three months in Beijing, learning first-hand about the intricate and complex codified style of this art form.
In China, my understanding of the art deepened. I learned that Jingju represents reality in a heightened and ornamented way: distilling feelings, moments and actions to their purest forms and shaping them into something physically, musically and visually entrancing. Every movement, note and costume is carefully constructed to represent, rather than recreate, reality, giving the spectator a story that portrays life in the most vibrant way possible.
Since the exchange, my degree has become focused more on physical theatre, and the study of both traditional and hybrid performance styles that combine classical forms with modern theatre. My work with Jingju has most certainly led me to where I am today, a performer with and general manager of Jingju Canada, and rehearsing to perform in the theatre department’s production of Peleus and Thetis. Having been cast in a substantial role, playing the goddess Thetis, I can safely say that I’ve never before been involved in a project that has demanded so much personal blood, sweat and tears.
Producing a play that combines the Western practice of portraying Greek myth with Jingju’s physicality has been difficult, to say the least. On many a night, I have found myself lying on the floor of a studio in a tangle of silks ready to give up on choreography and asking myself why I continue to do something so difficult.
But every time I hit a wall, Jingju’s guiding principle that everything on the stage should be elevated to its most vibrant state drives me to stand up and do one more kick or one more run of a scene until I know for certain that the performance is beautiful. In the end I always come back to the reason Jingju entranced me two years ago: my attachment and connection to the fundamental concept of beauty.