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Director Pushes Boundaries of Modern Arts

Meng Jinghui, arguably the most influential director of China's avant-garde stage, has returned to experimenting in small theatre with a new show, which debuts tonight at the Oriental Experimental Theatre in Beijing.

He has worked on a number of commercial commissions in the past six years, such as the musical Amber and the children's game-like play Magic Mountain, which was staged at a gymnasium for thousands of viewers.

His last small theatre production was Bootleg Faust at the end of 2000.

His first small theatre work after a hiatus of almost six years is entitled The Flower in the Mirror, The Moon on the Water (Jinghua Shuiyue), which will continue through May 28.

The drama has drawn inspiration from Chinese contemporary poet Xi Chuan's poem of the same title.

Yet Meng argued that he has never walked far away from small theatre in the last six years. He was always thinking of stories and themes until Xi's poem got his creative juices flowing.

Even though the poem or the drama doesn't have a complete story, nor specific roles and a clear theme, Meng said he has created an entire new dramatic vocabulary in China.

The whole production is composed of nine fluid and dreamy scenes: I dreamed of you last night, Shadow, The girl with earphones, Map, Story of a face, Poison, Pas De Deux, Peony and You have a crush on me.

Each presents the broken pieces of the messy metropolitan life, people's mental crashes, fatalistic roles, black memories and cruel reality.

"I am sure the audience could not understand what happens on stage, but they would definitely feel a certain inexplicable excitement, an echo in their inner heart," the director told China Daily.

"The abstract play does not mean that I fool the audience. I am responsible for every audience and each of my productions shows them the real Meng Jinghui," he said.

He added that the crew would hold an after-show discussion every night and welcome the audience to share their reviews with the director himself and all the cast and crew.

It is difficult to characterize Meng's new work because his modus operandi is to push the boundaries of all genres, including the paintings, installations, architecture, music, multimedia and many modern art genres. But eventually, all the eclectic elements intertwine to make up his innovative work.

In addition to six performers whom Meng defines as the Man, the Woman, the Mirror, the Flower, the Water and the Moon, Meng works with the electronic musician Feng Jiangzhou, song-writer Shao Yanpeng, multimedia producer Jiang Zhi, installation artist Shen Shaomin and sculptor Jiang Jie.

"This time my experience is very different from what a director usually does in a play," he said.

"I feel myself more like an architect, designing a space. It's a challenge to work with so many artists from different genres. I give them free rein as much as possible. For instance, in 10 minutes, there is no action and no performers on stage, only music," Meng said.

He also said that his learning experience has been a matter of exploration, which he has learned from American stage director Robert Wilson and Canada's visionary and foremost director Robert Lepage.

Dismissed as a charlatan by his detractors and exalted as a visionary by his fans, Wilson is one of the world's most innovative theatre directors, a mercurial force who ranks in the 20th-century experimental pantheon.

Meanwhile, Lepage, who is known for his drama The Far Side of the Moon which he also adapted into a movie in 1999, has established himself as an internationally acclaimed stage and film director, designer, playwright and performer.

Lepage's dynamic and original approach constantly pushes the boundaries of theatrical performance, most notably with the use of new technologies. Most of his productions are in essence a collaborative with other artists, whether creators or performers.

"The modern arts, such as installations, multimedia, visual art and action art, have developed very fast in China in the last 10 years, but we seldom see them in theatrical production, which is a trendy approach in the United States and Europe," said Meng, who actually had the idea to use these modern art elements in his play long ago.

Challenge for the cast

In 1993, Meng's genius for image inspired him to use multimedia technology in the play I Love XXX.

His production Si Fan features modern visual arts in the setting, and he had invited Feng Jiangzhou to create the soundtrack for Heads or Tails? (Guanyu Aiqing Guisu de Zuixin Guannian).

But this time, Meng will present a spectacular hotpot of all kinds of modern arts.

"I find myself more than ever returning to the idea of the theatre as a meeting place for architecture, music, dance, literature, acrobatics, play, and so on," said the director.

"In some of my previous shows, this is what has interested me most of all: Gathering artists together, combining different styles and disciplines."

As for the "text," although he is inspired by Xi Chuan's poems The Flower in the Mirror, The Moon on the Water and Scenery Close by, Scenery far away, the words seem to have little to do with the play. Meng just lets the six performers read the poems without any personal emotions.

"I don't think these performers could understand the poems well, though they are all good actors, and even I myself could not really understand what Xi Chuan wants to express in his words," Meng explained.

"So I just ask them to read it out subjectively and let the audience to savour it with their own judgments."

Half of the cast, including Zhao Hongwei, Su Xiaogang and Song Liu, have worked with Meng in his previous shows, while Shen Jiani, Lin Danuo and Tang Zixiang are new graduates from the Central Academy of Drama and perform Meng's work for the first time.

Whether they are newcomers or "old staff," they all have no clear idea what Meng is doing.

During rehearsals, they ask the director, "What are we doing on stage? Are we performers of a play or interpreters of Xi Chuan's poem?"

Meng answered: "You are neither performers nor interpreters but creators of a drama style."

After watching a rehearsal, Xi Chuan said: "I did not expect you to be limited in my poems, and now I am so excited to see such an interesting approach, which almost has nothing to do with my poem."

Would theatre-goers like to challenge themselves to watch such a strange play that the director bets they would definitely not understand?

The mercurial and idiosyncratic director Meng revealed that if viewers are a fan of David Lynch's movies, they will enjoy "The Flower in the Mirror, The Moon on the Water."

(China Daily May 18, 2006)

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