Warm cheers erupted at New York's Beacon Theatre February 13. The crowd, some clad in t-shirts with yin-yang symbols, some with tattoos of scorpions on their arms and kerchiefs on their heads, were not the usual New York theatre crowd; and the performance was in no way ordinary fare. The Shaolin Warriors from China had taken over the theatre, and with it, the hearts of their audience.
This very engaging and skilled group of performers had one night to perform at the Beacon, a landmark theatre on the Upper West Side, and they gave over all their energy to it. The performers are superbly trained in wushu, a generic term for the warrior tradition maintained at the Shaolin temple. Wednesday night, they gave the audience exactly what it was looking for - demonstrations of skill, strength, speed and timing, topped off with a dose of gentle humor and more than a little crowd-pleasing hokiness.
The performance began with a romantic setting of a Shaolin temple, where a young initiate asked the Sifu, "What is Shaolin Kung Fu?" The show demonstrated different aspects of the answer from there. We were first shown a brief demonstration of nei gung, internal exercises, which take time and are rather subtle. Before the audience could become restless, however, the young, shaven-headed company was vaulting through the air with kicks, punches and a wide spectrum of weapons. The performance was organized as vignettes designed to show off an escalating set of different techniques, sometimes performed by groups in unison, sometimes by single performers or pairs. One particularly engaging scene included young members of the troupe doing impressions of animals whose movements underlie the techniques of Shaolin kung fu. One of the youngest (and certainly the smallest) boy did an impression of a monkey so cleverly realized that no one is likely to forget it anytime soon. A crowd-pleasing "drunken" sequence closed the first half, with artfully performed martial techniques giving way to various feats of skill, including bringing members of the audience up to try to remove a drinking bowl which was stuck to the stomach of one of the performers. They failed to remove it, and the young man then casually allowed the bowl to drop into his hands, thereby showing the power of his stomach muscles had held it firmly to him. Though these sorts of tricks have little to do with martial arts practice, the audience loved it all the same.
After a too-lengthy intermission (the Beacon's fault, not the performers), the show resumed with a depiction of everyday tasks at the Shaolin temple, but with a martial arts twist. Brooms became sticks for fighting forms, a 3-part staff used for flailing grain became a formidable weapon. The inevitable "using a sledgehammer to break a slab on one guy's chest who is on top of a bed of nails which is on top of a guy who is on top of a set of swords" was sort of predictable, but by this time, no one cared ("Call the ambulance," one audience member behind me called out just before the hammer swing down). By the second half, the audience and performers were in nearly perfect sync with each other, engaged in an easy give-and-take of performance of fighting forms and applause, evolving a kind of rhythm that added to the overall fun.
I most enjoyed the graceful moments: in the first half, a flute player accompanied himself through a form while playing a tune. In the second, rice bowls and chopsticks were turned into a clever mini-ballet and exercise in balance and timing.
It is easy to say the performers were skilful, that was to be expected. One of the best aspects of the performers was their relaxed state of mind. Though there was plenty of action, no one seemed rushed. It was hard to discern even if performers were breathing hard after some physically exhausting sequences. Though they must have sweated through some of the routines, no one looked it.
Rather than including a dramatic piece as in last year's show, this year's Shaolin Warriors instead featured what the audience really wanted - more action. Some duels and fight scenes were included. During the mock combat scenes, there were inevitable "losers" who fell to the stage floor as though injured. The crowd loved it, but it made me wonder: Aren't these guys Buddhist monks? Aren't they supposed to abhor violence? As if anticipating this question, the program notes helpfully pointed out that the monks consider their practice to be a meditative one. In fact, the whole performance reinforced the myths surrounding the Shaolin Temple and its martial arts practice, especially as it has been depicted here in the West. The full range of stage effects, including colored light, dry ice, stage settings and recorded and live music made the performance more like an action flick than a solemn Zen practice. On the other hand, the performance worked superbly as pure entertainment on a human scale, in part by impressing us with what "human scale" can actually accomplish.
At the end, the dialogue between teacher and disciple resumed, with the boy realizing "Shaolin Kung Fu builds moral character, strengthens the body and celebrates life." For an audience of true believers, that sounded just right.
JTC Mar 2002