Tang Yuen-ha. founder and artistic director of Jingju and Kunqu Theatre. Well-versed in Eastern andWestern arts and culture from an early age, Tang has a slew of awards to her name,attesting not only to the strength of her bicultural training but also the mentorship of a number of Xiqu maestros. She founded Jingju and Kunqu Theatre in the 1980s, dedicating herself to the performance and production of Jingju and Kunqu while actively promoting traditional Chinese theatrical arts in Hong Kong and abroad.
What’s keeping you busy lately?
I’ve just wrapped up the Jingju (Peking opera) and Kunqu (Kun opera) training programme co-organised with the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, which concluded with a students’ performance at the end of last year. I really hope to take what’s been achieved in this programme to the next level and am now pondering on how to proceed with things to reach the goal of “passing on the arts, cultivating personal integrity” through providing training and promoting the arts of Jingju and Kunqu. I’m now sorting out the history of Jingju and Kunqu Theatre since its establishment in the 1980s. It’d be worthwhile to chronicle the theatre productions, education and promotion work and cultural exchanges both at home and abroad over the years, allowing retrospection and contemplation on the journey travelled so far. In addition, I’m also writing a thesis on the aesthetics of Chinese Traditional Theatre.
What are your favourite repertoires? Do you have a favourite role?
Bai Suzhen of The Legend of the White Snake, Du Liniang of The Peony Pavilion and Chen Xiuying of The Romance of the Iron Bow, to name just a few. There’s an extra dimension of depth to the characterisation of Bai Suzhen and Du Liniang in particular. As two women so fervent in their pursuit of love that they are willing to sacrifice their lives – Bai Suzhen, a creation of legend confronting the oppressive forces of established doctrines and Du Liniang, a woman of olden times breaking the shackles of traditional morality – they pursue what their hearts desire at all costs and regardless of the consequences, rendering beautiful stories that encapsulate poignantly the kindness, wisdom and perseverance of women.
Commanding the stage as Chen Xiuying in The Romance of the Iron Bow Starring as Bai Suzhen in The Legend of the White Snake
You were once a concert pianist. In what ways did your musical background inspire your interpretation and performance of Xiqu?
The arts are interconnected. My training in music has afforded me a better sense of rhythm, timbre change and the overall layout of a piece of work. This appreciation of music can be well applied to Xiqu arts – the overall layout, for example, is just as important to a Xiqu performance and a sense of rhythm is one of the key factors for a player to capture and sustain the audience’s attention.
Besides Xiqu, what other arts disciplines would you like to try your hand at?
I’ve dabbled in almost all disciplines of the arts! I’ve had my fair share of experiences with the arts since young: Xiqu, piano, ballet… I once performed modern dance on stage and played a part in a stage play, and I haven’t abandoned calligraphy and painting. In other words, I’ve pretty much tried them all and have all the basic knowledge. If I were to name an art discipline that I want to try most, I wouldn’t be able to come up with one. Or, perhaps, to put it in another way, I’ve experienced and learned the arts in its many forms – I’ve been there and done that! It was Jingju and Kunqu I chose in the end.
What are your hobbies outside of work?
Calligraphy, Tai Chi, and I also play sports like swimming.
Which artist do you admire most?
Marcel Marceau, the pre-eminent French mime, was an artist I truly admired. His accomplishments were unparalleled in the history of pantomime! Throughout his career he had never failed to command the stage with his silent solo portrayals, using only his body language to conjure up whatever images he wanted the audience to see! You could practically see the whole world through his body movements, his eyes and expressions. There wasn’t a character or situation he couldn’t portray vividly and engage the audience in the act of it. We Xiqu actors have a saying, “The scene is carried by the actors.” That is to say, a scene is created by association in the mind of the audience through the performance of the actors, an art which Marceau had taken to the pinnacle of perfection!
Tang gives demonstrations and workshops in Australia
Have you got any thoughts on promoting Jingju and Kunqu in Hong Kong and abroad?
For more than a decade, our theatre has endeavoured to promote Xiqu with the objective of fostering understanding of Chinese culture among the younger generation through the arts of Jingju and Kunqu. Our guided appreciation of the Xiqu performance, Know Your Jingju and Kunqu, has become our star attraction, winning us admiration and appreciation from visiting and collaborating mainland peers who praised its meticulously deduced structure. Indeed, our model has been adopted by mainland theatre companies in recent years. To a certain extent, our efforts in promoting Xiqu abroad have been pioneering. We’ve been twice invited by the University of Sydney for an exchange visit to Australia and the overwhelming responses we’ve received dispelled any worries that Xiqu would be lost on the Australian audience, even inspiring the idea of staging guest performances each year. Xiqu, with Jingju and Kunqu as its most elaborate and sophisticated forms, is an established theatrical system and should be recognised as such on the world’s art stage. I haven’t encountered any problems in promoting Jingju and Kunqu either at home or abroad. However, to take things to the next level, the government must be ready to adjust cultural policies to facilitate the long-term and continuous development of the arts.
What are your goals for the year ahead?
My life has always been inseparable from the Theatre and this year should be no different. I’ll be devoting to the four areas of work: performance and production, promotion, education and international exchanges. Most importantly is to proceed with the groundwork laid. By nature, our work takes a long, slow course.
Off stage, Tang devotes much of her time to teaching Xiqu students