On Friday, August 4, some Affiliations staff attended an explanatory demonstrationÂ of this fascinating art form, a precursor to a real KunquÂ performance at the Freer/Sackler GalleryÂ entitled ‘The Palace of Eternal Youth’.Â Â http://www.asia.si.edu/events/performances.asp
Named an ‘Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ by the United Nations, kunquÂ isÂ classical Chinese musical theater.Â We learned that a singleÂ performance may be made upÂ of 50-200 scenes, so one performance of kunqu, performed at Lincoln Center in NYC, lasted for 19 hours!Â (We were assured that the performance at Freer/Sackler would beÂ much shorter.)Â Until well into the 20th century, kunqu was gender segregated – not only the acting troupes, but the audiences as well!
In the picture here, acclaimed young actress Qian Yi demonstrates the precise movements of kunqu.Â Each character has a different way of walking which indicates theirÂ role – consorts of the emperorÂ glide very slowly, almost imperceptibly, while maids rush around in circles, walking quickly heel to toe.Â Scholars have yet another precise walk.Â Â Ladies of the court always keep their hands in a precise configuration, to evoke the beauty of orchids, with fingers spread and articulated.Â
As one might expect in aÂ Chinese art form,Â yin and yang areÂ implicit, even in movements.Â BeforeÂ pointing right, an actress will weaveÂ her hand around to the left,Â and vice versa.Â If a character has toÂ bend down to pick a flower, heÂ will first rise up on his toes.
Many different Chinese dialects can be used in a kunqu performance, butÂ it is the clown that mostÂ frequently mixes dialects.Â Qian Yi also demonstrated how kunqu sounds, and the extensive use of melisma – a word I didn’t know until today!Â Melisma is the technique of changing theÂ pitch of a syllable of text while it is being sung.Â It is said that melismaÂ achieves a hypnotic trance in the listener…. certainly true in this case, as we could hardly stand to leave once she started singing!