If you missed the recent three-night performance of "T'ai Chi," a new Chinese acrobatic variety show staged in Beijing prior to its worldwide tour, you can still catch the "Kungfu Show: Hidden Dragon, Crouching Tiger" performed nightly at the Xinrong Theatre.
The 90 minute martial arts spectacular is a dazzling dance drama that features some 50 kungfu experts displaying their kicks, punches and use of weapons with uncanny speed, power and agility.
A virtual feast for the eye, the stunning performance is complemented by bold and colourful costumes, innovative choreography and action-timed music marked by loud thuds as the martial arts combatants slam each other to the floor.
You don't have to be a martial arts enthusiast to appreciate their incredible feats of strength, with fists, feet, swords, whips, chains and knives flying furiously, (perhaps this explains why the first row of seats are blocked off!) Backflips and handstands are all done with precision and in a dance-like manner that often mimics the natural movements of animals.
Produced by the Beijing Detian Sunyi Culture Development Company, the show appeals to all ages. Kids love the martial arts action and parents enjoy the engaging music and appealing stage scenery. The 600-seat Xinrong Theatre, which belongs to a nearby factory and is generally reserved for staff conferences, is an excellent venue for the show.
Both the T'ai Chi and Kungfu shows were directed by Li Xining, a veteran choreographer of acrobatic shows. Li has also worked with foreign circuses and helped direct the "Shaolin Warriors," a kungfu show now playing to sold out audiences in the United States and Canada.
According to Gao Du, the current show's executive director, "Shaolin Warriors" is pure kungfu, with no plot; "T'ai Chi" is mainly kungfu and acrobatics; and the "Kungfu Show," which is more theoretical, is a combination of kungfu and dance.
"All three shows are for foreigners, so we call them internationalized," said Gao, who is a choreographer." Most people are familiar with examples of traditional Chinese culture such as Peking opera and Chinese acrobatics, dance, drama and music. But these shows go beyond those traditions and integrate many of those forms."
The theme of the "Kungfu Show" is the struggle to purify the soul by pursuing harmony, love, peace and freedom, according to Gao. The performance takes place with the legendary Shangri-La Mountain in the background. At its foot, two famous kungfu schools - the Dragon School and the Tiger School - hold a yearly fighting competition to decide who is best.
The story depicts dramatic confrontations involving a tiger and a dragon who fight in the beginning but who later fall in love with each other. As a result, hatred that has existed for generations between both groups disappears.
"It's like Romeo and Juliette, in which both of their families fight, but in the end they have harmonious relations," said Gao.
The peaceful resolution of the conflict represents the "integration of heaven and earth," Gao said. "Life is endless and kungfu is infinite."
Except for two performers who are dancers and another who is a gymnast, the performers are all professional kungfu practitioners.
Gao discovered them in kungfu schools in Laizhou and Liangshan in Shandong Province and Hebei Province. It took two months to teach them how to put their martial arts skills into a dance form for the show.
The audiences' reaction to "Kungfu" has been overwhelmingly positive, said Gao. "Many foreigners come to watch the show.
They say it is very novel and unique. And investors are interested in introducing the show to the overseas market."
Considering the popularity of Chinese kungfu as performed by Hollywood film star Jet Li, or the fighting scenes shown in the US Academy Award winning film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," Gao's show is sure to be a hit with overseas audiences.
Shaolin Temple (Shaolin Si) is said to be the birthplace of Chinese kungfu. It was founded in AD 496 near Zhengzhou, capital of Central China's Henan Province. Li Shimin, a Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) emperor, called it the "No 1 temple on earth" and awarded the monks a high rank after they saved him from an enemy. (This is the plot of the movie "Shaolin Temple.")
Afterwards, the temple became famous and has since attracted many students to study kungfu at the temple.
There are currently many people now learning kungfu in China, and there are many different schools. The kungfu market has become a worldwide phenomenon.
"More than 100,000 people are now learning kungfu in the area around the Shaolin Temple," said Gao. "One of the schools I went to had 20,000 students."
Kungfu is literally translated to mean "skill from effort." Since the term is used to describe any martial art that comes from China, it includes hundreds of individual Chinese fighting arts. "Wushu" is another term for Chinese martial arts.
Both terms were once synonymous but over the last three decades, wushu in China has been adapted to meet universal standards for training and competitions.
Don't expect the kungfu craze to disappear any time soon, especially if China, as host of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, succeeds in its efforts to make wushu an official Olympic event.
Until then, treat yourself to an exciting and memorable performance of the "Kungfu Show" at the Xinrong Theatre.
( China Daily June 20, 2002)