Text and photos by Jo Lim, Company Manager of The Theatre Practice
Nanjing, Jiangsu, China.
It is a city of ghosts- Nanjing is the land of Sun Quan in the Three Kingdoms, the capital city of many forgotten dynasties of ancient China, and the site of the massacre that many have come to associate the city with. I have always wanted to visit this gem of a city and 2 weeks ago, I finally did.
Upon our arrival, we were greeted by mascots and banners that publicized the recent Summer Youth Olympic Games. The city is largely modern dotted by remnants of its past grandeur, such as parts of the Great Wall and the popular city gate, Xuanwu Gate. And in the week that I was in Nanjing, it was the city that hosted the Toki International Arts Festival.
It was a small but important festival that brought Japanese and Chinese classical and contemporary artists and performers on the same stage, a poignant and bold gesture. More importantly it showcased some of the best kunqu actors in their classical roles, juxtaposed with the same performers taking on devised roles with contemporary performers from a diverse genre- from puppetry, dance to theatre.
The first piece we watched was 3.19, a gripping performance put together by the Kun troupe that tells the story of the desperate last days of the last Ming emperor, Zhu Youjian. The only way to distinguish the characters was through their footwear as they did not paint their face nor don the traditional costumes or headgears. Stripped of the physical characteristics of Chinese opera, the audience focused only on the story telling and the movements, and it was sufficient.
On the second night, we watched several excerpts of more comic and accessible kun pieces.
On the last day, the audiences watched several 20 minutes of experimental pieces, one of them directed by TTP’s very own Liu Xiaoyi. He had first directed two kun actors in the same piece for the M1 Chinese Theatre Festival 2014’s 1 Table 2 Chairs Experimental Series. It was a humbling experience to walk out of a performance with more questions than answers but it was also explained to us that the festival was created for the performers in mind. Toki’s importance is in its mission to protect traditional art forms and to create a platform for traditional artists to hone their skills and to find relevance on the contemporary stage.