Kungfu Under the Big Top
Cirque Du Soleil's Hot New Show, Dralion

By Gene Ching

Cirque Du Soleil Every kungfu aficionado should know one word in French - Chinoiserie. Pronounced sheen-waz-re, chinoiserie refers to something reflecting Chinese artistic influence. It descends from a style of art that was popular in old France. Inspired by imported Chinese textiles, elaborate French decoration (as well as painting) began incorporating intricate patterns in their own art that mimicked the Chinese style. Now, as the rising sun of Chinese culture shines all over the world, chinoiserie is becoming fashionable once again. And today's cutting edge chinoiserie is presently showing in - of all places - the circus. But this is a circus reinvented, perhaps the most avant-garde performance in the entire world. For the year of the Dragon, the world renowned Cirque Du Soleil has unveiled its latest wizardry, a chinoiserie-themed show called Dralion.

If you have not experienced a Cirque Du Soleil production yet, you have been missing one of the most innovative performance events of our generation. Cirque was founded in 1984 in Quebec, the source of its French moniker. Discard any presumptions about the circus you might have, because Cirque is a totally new concept - a strikingly dramatic mix of circus arts and street entertainment, featuring beautiful, fantastic costumes, set to original live music, with no animals acts. Since its birth, more that 23 million people worldwide have seen a Cirque Du Soleil production and on a typical weekend this year, some 50,000 people will see one of Cirque's shows being staged simultaneously around the world. Cirque has performed in over 120 cities worldwide, and is currently staging seven shows in four continents. Before this immense worldwide audience its current production, Dralion, has introduced a new element to into its myriad acts - the art of Chinese kungfu.

Cirque Du Soleil-poster Harmony Among the Elements - The Kungfu of Acrobatics
In the West, kungfu means martial arts. But in China, it is a much broader term that means great skill or something that has taken a lot of practice over time to acquire. Not only can you have good kungfu in the way you fight, you can have good kungfu in the way you sing, dance or play music. Or even how long you can do a one-handed handstand. Chinese acrobatics have always had a strong connection to kungfu. Many great masters, such as Hung Gar's legendary folk hero Wong Fei Hung, earned their keep as itinerant street performers, demonstrating their martial and acrobatic skill for contributions. Furthermore, classical Chinese Opera stars are highly trained in both acrobatics and kungfu because many Chinese Operas retell great battles. In fact, one of the five classic roles for a Chinese opera star is a wusheng (martial hero.) A wusheng must be fully trained in kungfu to be able to wield ancient weapons in outrageously ornate costumes. Both Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung graduated from a Chinese opera school. Westerners who criticize contemporary Wushu for being too acrobatic overlook this fundamental cultural context. In China, traditional kungfu is as much a performance art as it is a combat skill.

Cirque Du Soleil The tradition of Chinese acrobatics is highly venerated among the Chinese people. Studying traditional acrobatics has many parallels to the hardships of kungfu training. There are even contests. One of the most prominent is the Wuhan International Acrobatic Festival. Cirque's performers have participated in this festival and won many prestigious awards there. Culling thirty-five members of China's prized Xinan Acrobatic Troupe, under the direction of Ms. Li Xining, Cirque designed special routines to highlight their extraordinary talents for Dralion. For four months to this show, the Xinan troupe underwent special training in China, followed by four more months of intensive training in Montreal. This was in addition to their years of training in their own special skills. In April 1999, Dralion hit the road, bringing this astonishing fusion of traditional Chinese acrobatics and Cirque Du Soleil magic to the world.

Oceane - Dralion Crossing the Ocean
The title act, Dralion, is a blend of traditional Chinese dragon and lion dances. The Dralion itself is a fantastic creation combining a dragon head with a lion body, all adorned with the outrageous trappings characteristic of the Cirque style. It is chinoiserie incarnate, based on the traditional performance art of kungfu, Lion dancing. Many kungfu styles practice lion dancing as a non-violent method to display their martial prowess. In fact, the aforementioned martial hero, Wong Fei Hung, was also known as the King of Lions. However, most Westerners are only familiar with Canton-style lion dance due to the predominance of Cantonese immigrants. Beyond Canton, there are many diverse minorities throughout China, each with their own unique animal folk dance. Cirque's Dralion is actually closer to the rare Chinese qilin. A qilin is a mythical beast with a dragon head and a horse or lion body. Its Japanese incarnation, the Kirin, is more recognizable in the West due to the famous beer bearing the same name. However, the Dralion dance is based on northern Chinese lion dance. With a costume design unique to Cirque, the Dralion is a new incarnation that fuses many elements.

Traditionally, only the strongest students of a kungfu school were allowed to play the lion. This is because the lion is symbolic of the school and the master. For Dralion, Cirque employed some of China?s top experts. Wang Bing brings over ten years of Lion dance training to his performance as one of the Dralions. He began studying wushu at age six, training rigorously on the basic techniques called jibengong in Mandarin. Since his father was a circus person, he switched to acrobatics, studying along with 600 other students at Li Xining's circus academy. Even with over a quarter century of experience, he still had to put in an extra six months of intensive preparation for Dralion's most difficult stunt - three Dralions on one ball. Now this Dralion costume is actually heavier than a traditional lion dance costume because of the special effects devices. But Wang Bing comments that with good basics, it is not much of an adjustment. According to Wang, "Dralion is the combination of Chinese culture and Western culture, so I hope more audience will come to see the show and I will do my best to present the best to them."

Cirque Du Soleil Azala - Stepping Like to Walk on Air
But the centerpiece Dralion dance is only one of many extraordinary feats within Cirque's new show. Several of Dralion's performances are reminiscent of Chinese martial arts. In one of its most surreal offerings, Dralion mirrors one of kungfu's most infamous training methods, the plum flower poles. High atop plum flower poles, kungfu students drill their footwork, refining their balance to the highest levels. The object is not to fall off. In the mystic world of Cirque Du Soleil, this ancient method is metamorphosed into the height of beauty and elegance. Instead of horse stance, it is ballet point. And instead of plum flower poles, it is light bulbs. This amazing act is Dralion?s new Ballet on Lights.

Like kungfu, ballet requires extreme dedication and extensive discipline. Combined with the rigorous demands of Chinese acrobatics, there are only a few dozen performers in the world who can perform the Ballet on Lights. In order to perform this amazing skill, Ren Cuicui studied acrobatics from childhood. Although she has no martial training, she studied gymnastics and teeterboard extensively, training for six hours a day - every day - in China. She has been on tour with Dralion for a year now, performing on average ten shows a week. Throughout this tour, she must still practice for two hours each day, just to maintain her skills.

According to Ren, her work for Dralion is more difficult than performing in China. In China, she just performs what her teacher trained her to do, but Dralion is more interpretive. She must be more creative and artistic. These demands are challenging for the young 18-year-old. Despite the adventure of circus life, she misses her family, and looks forward to when she can return to China. Very soon, another troupe will replace hers. Then she can go home and the show will go on.

Yao - Warrior Lighting the Fire
For kungfu lovers, the most fascinating element of Dralion is Yao, the fire. Dralion is composed around four central characters: Oceane (ocean), Azala (air), Gaya (earth) and Yao. Yao is a kungfu warrior. In fact, in the auditions for the role of Yao, previous kungfu training was mandatory. The current Yao, Luis Peligrini, trained extensively in kungfu in his homeland Brazil. Kungfu is very popular in Brazil, especially Hung Gar, Shaolin and Praying Mantis. Peligrini studied under Sifu Benny Hu (Hu Xiaoshu) focusing on snake style. He also trained in tiger style, tan tui, a little monkey style and a little nanquan. "I learned a little bit of Olympic nanquan," admits Peligrini in his heavy Brazilian accent. "I also competed a little bit with this one, but I was terrible. The Olympic style was terrible - I like traditional."

Cirque Du Soleil Auditioning for Cirque is an extraordinary process. Peligrini brought 10 years of kungfu experience, plus a few years of Astanga Yoga, modern dance and hip hop, to a cattle call specifically looking at martial artists. It was a grueling test of skill, to be followed by another test of patience. Peligrini remembers, "I knew some people from Cirque and they said 'Oh, they?re coming and you gotta do it - the audition.' I said 'how?' At that I time I was 6 months without training. So I called all my friends and said 'let's train!' Then we went to a meeting with Cirque. We invite them to go to the academy. So we trained the full day on Saturday to show them something more. Sunday we went there - it wasn't the audition, they just saw what we are able to do. Then give us a full morning for the real audition."

The Cirque people were pleased with what they saw but they wanted to see more. "We did the audition. We had a group of people in the academy and we auditioned all together. We first showed everything we knew: the combination fights, and all the weapons and all the forms. (Then) they start to ask for some acrobatics. But for 3 hours, we did only wushu." Still, a favorable response from Cirque did not guarantee a role with the show. Peligrini had to endure a test of time. "You do the audition, then you pass, then you wait. So I wait for 8 months, then they invite me for Mystere, another show in Las Vegas. It didn't happen - the guy (who had the role) didn't leave. I wait more - six months. Then they called me to do the audition. At that time, they were in Toronto. They wanted to do a test again because they didn't know how I was. They asked on the telephone 'Are you fat? Are you still training? Are you still in shape?' I said 'Yeah, I'm still in shape.' They said 'So we want you come and do two weeks of test and if you're not good, you go back to Brazil in two weeks. Otherwise you train here because we start in two months.' So I had two months."

Cirque Du Soleil_drum Once Peligrini secured the role of Yao, new trials lay in wait for him. He was slated to replace the previous Yao, a Beijing Opera professional. His foundation in traditional kungfu served him well, as he quickly learned the classic Chinese routines of flying trident and flag acrobatics. "The flying trident I start to learn here when I arrive last year in July from (the previous) Yao, from Beijing opera. I'm replacing him for eight months now. Some choreography I kept like it was, some we changed. Opera to kungfu - similar but not the same - so some movements for me are easier. I play a little bit of the flag in Brazil, but I was one of the jumpers. I never really trained a lot that. Here, the flag was huge. I took my time to learn. I made some mistakes, of course. I'm doing the trident now for one month and a half. I practiced for a long time." Peligrini rolls up his sleeve to show the scabbed calluses from spinning his trident every night on his inner arm. "Here, no hair! It's very good. I like it very much - a very nice weapon, (like) rope dart. Now those are my favorites: flying trident and rope dart. When I doing I feel like I'm playing. I can do that for hours, just stay playing!"

Gaya - Sitting on Top of the Earth
As Yao, Luis Peligrini's perspective on kungfu is truly unique. He is bringing kungfu to a brand new audience in a most innovative way, an unexpected one for this young Brazilian. After eight months of touring as Yao, he is as excited as ever about his worldwide impact promoting Chinese martial arts. "Everything I use is kungfu. I love it! It's a chance to show that martial arts is not only aggressive or only (for) fight, but also has a very good aesthetic and form. That is martial arts with dance. In all the movements we do in dance, you can see the same movements. We just use a different intention. The people, when they come talk to me, they say 'What dance do you do? You might do some martial arts.' They?re not sure. They see more of the dance and I?m really glad they see more dance."

Cirque Du Soleil_Yao The role of Yao is one that any martial artist might covet - to run away with the world's greatest circus and be the star demonstrating kungfu! But Peligrini never forgets to honor his teacher and our venerated art. His advice to any aspiring martial artists who might follow in his footsteps is one of dedication and reverence. "Just keep training. Listen to your master. You're gonna find that you can learn kungfu from your master for ten years, and when you stop training you're gonna still be learning. Because what they teach, the movements they offer, is so big. The field that we have is so big. If you keep training every day you're gonna find something new in your old movements. So you have to keep training - keep thinking (about) what you are doing. The movements when training are giving energy, even the old people. I think that?s why it's so important that the martial arts are so old. If you have that energy everywhere, you can contact the energy when you?re training, if you?re really open."

Being open is what keeps kungfu fresh. Being open to new ideas and innovations will keep the beauty and majesty of kungfu thriving beyond this millennium of the dragon, well into the next. To remain truly loyal to the kungfu tradition requires that it be kept vital. And the source of that vitality is creativity. Anything less would be obsolete. The unique vision created by the artists of Dralion invigorates our imagination with a fantastic realm of enchanting possibilities. In our modern world, such inspiration is rare and priceless. The show must go on.

Click here for Feature Articles from this issue and others published in 2000 .

Written by Gene Ching for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM

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