The Jyou-tian Folk Drum and Arts Group has become a professional performance troupe. The venues, audiences, and aesthetic values are all different from those they encountered before. How can a folk arts group change to meet these high standards without losing their rootsy vitality?
Mid-June saw the Jyou-tian Folk Drum and Arts Group's first Taipei performances in proper theaters. They gave three performances at the Taipei National University of the Arts' dance theater and the Novel Hall for Performing Arts. Though all the performances were free, Jyou-tian still gave them their all. They even made models of the stages beforehand and brought them to Taipei to plan with the theater staff.
After the performance at TNUA a discussion session entitled "Folk Arts Go to the Theaters" was held. The discussion centered around the question of how a grassroots folk arts group changes when it begins performing in professional theaters.
"The main function of a folk performance group is to create a scene and bring feverish excitement," says Lin Mao-hsien, a lecturer in Taiwanese literature at Providence University. "There aren't such high expectations concerning the artistic quality of the performances." The audience, he explains, is moving around, and the performance is more ceremonial than artistic. The performers usually only have one or two moves and go on for only ten minutes or so.
The people who operate the big, towering god costumes, for example, can only walk along and swing their arms. The drummers of the big drums on the trucks can only beat out lively rhythms--they don't make any expressive movements with their limbs to add a visual element to their performances.
In a theater, a focused audience demands a professional performance. "If they were only to bring their original performance to the stage, then what's the point of going to the theater when you could see that at a temple festival?" asks Hsu Ya-hsiang, chair of Chinese Culture University's Department of Theatre Arts.
That means that the change of venues to theaters entails a refining of the performance. A troupe needs choreography and a lot of fine-tuning of their act before taking it to the stage--repeating the simple movements used in temple festivals wouldn't hold the audience's attention. The Jyou-tian troupe has made great efforts in this area.
For their renowned "Drums of the War God" act, Jyou-tian put together several complex rhythms and had the first drummer play three drums. From time to time, the drummers jump and flip as the drums pound. They switch places with one another and let out primal shouts--it's completely different from their temple festival performances.
In their "Chief Officers" performance, a blue background is complemented by two giant red lanterns to the sides and a giant god costume. It is quite effective in creating an atmosphere. The Chief Officers--enforcers from the underworld with wild facepaint and all sorts of weapons--line the stage as shadows and music envelop them and little demons somersault through the air. Not only is the staging effective and evocative, it is also more fitting to the theater in this way.
Remembering the roots
Yang Chi-wen, a professor in TNUA's Department of Theatre Design and Technology, says that while a folk arts group making the transition into the theaters must adjust their performances accordingly, they at the same time must not lose their original vital force. The Chief Officers performance, for example, needs to maintain its original mysterious, religious qualities and its ceremonial steps.
Scholars advise Jyou-tian to be bold and drop their old notions of being associated with a temple when performing in theaters. Jyou-tian, the scholars maintain, should find their creativity as artists, and treat their origins as just one element of their performances.
The world-famous Cirque du Soleil, for example, gives its audiences more than just acrobatics--it presents an artistic banquet of stunts, music, dance, dazzling costumes, and fantastic drama, and audiences know not to expect just a run-of-the-mill circus. The monks of the Shaolin Wushu Training Centre are another example. They collaborated with U Theater and gave a show that was much more than a simple martial arts presentation.
On the journey from the temple to the theater, the Jyou-tian Folk Arts and Drum Group must keep striving in their training and their stage arrangements. They hope to be applauded not just for their background, but for their art as well.