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A New Kind of History

Kim Johnson - Yesterday I participated in a “Stylized Movement/Kung Fu Workshop” as part of the Visiting Artists Series here at Wabash. The workshop was a follow up to the group’s performance the night before of Tales from the Beijing Opera.

When I was first given my assignment I thought surely Jim had to be kidding me. I’m the rookie in the Public Affairs Office so I was half expecting the rest of the team to break out in laughter and razz me for falling for Jim’s preposterous request! And laugh they did, but I think it was more, “boy am I glad she got called out to do it and not me!”

Something like this is totally outside my comfort zone. I absolutely hate to be embarrassed or caught off guard (I think most people do but for me it’s almost an absolute fear). Plus, my sister got all of the grace and dancing ability in the family and my brother the martial arts skill. That leaves me on a good day with the ability to walk and chew gum at the same time.

Granted, Jim did say if I felt uncomfortable participating in the workshop I could just go cover it with a camera, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought, how often does the Beijing Opera come to Crawfordsville? I better take advantage of this! Plus it could be really fun!

So off I went to Ball Theater for a little Kung Fu!

The first thing I learned from the program was that “Kung Fu” means “time.” In China, the relationship between skill and time is embedded in the language and the term kungfu refers to anything that takes time to learn. Good! They already know if I’m going to learn this stuff, we’re going to have to have lots of time!

The workshop began with a brief history of the Beijing Opera – when it began, how it evolved, the culture of China, how different dynasties of China affected the social class of the actors and how that has evolved over time. The movements, costumes, and colors are all representative of culture and status.

The troupe leader, American Merrianne Moore, explained the typical training of actors. Many begin learning skills at a very early age, usually from a parent who is an actor or has a love of the theater. By the age of 10 or 11 they go to “opera school,” which is a boarding school where they learn techniques and skills six days a week. (The opera school training now includes academic coursework but didn’t always which served to perpetuate the existence of actors as a low social class.)

Our workshop followed a “typical day” at the opera school. We started by learning to walk and how to hold our hands and arms. Each movement was very systematic. There was a rhythm and purpose for everything.

We did leg training next which included kicks of which we would do 50 to 100 of each if we were students at the Opera School (there were four or five different kicks). Thankfully we only did a few. Between the kicks, jumps and arm movements I was beginning to feel like a plate of spaghetti. (I probably looked about like one too!)

Next was carpet training to help us stretch our waists and hips. I was thinking, “finally we get to sit and stretch.” I was imagining something like yoga class – long stretches with periodic rest poses. NOPE! Carpet training in the Opera School starts with five-minute handstands! Handstands are followed by cartwheels, no-handed cartwheels, front and back handsprings, tucks and whatever other flips, flops, jumps, and contortions the limber body will allow. I decided not to volunteer for this knowing full well the last time I attempted a cartwheel (about ten years ago!) I nearly broke my wrist.

We ended our workshop by learning a few techniques with the weapons and how those techniques would fit into a stage battle. By that time I felt like I had endured a battle and wondered if I could ever survive a day in opera school.

It was fun to share the stage with several Wabash men. (Check out photos here and here.) I was impressed with their willingness to take off their shoes and participate. Many of them were attempting handstands, cartwheels, and fighting with “the warrior” and truly enjoying the experience for what it was – a chance to take advantage of an opportunity that will likely never cross their paths again.

I figured if they didn’t care how silly they looked walking, kicking, and jumping across the stage there was absolutely no reason why I should! That’s the beauty of learning, right? A safe place to grow and stretch our minds (and bodies in this case), mess up, correct it, and try again, and if we’re lucky it’s in a fun and engaging atmosphere.

When we reached the end of our three hours together, I really felt like I had accomplished something or at least had given my best. As I headed back across campus, my new experience in hand, I pondered the last couple days – the afternoon discussion with the troupe on Monday, the Tales from the Beijing Opera performance that evening and the workshop I had just completed.

I couldn’t help but think if I had learned history like that – experiencing it – when I was in school, I wouldn’t have gotten a “C.”

Photos by Steve Charles