writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition

Kung Fu Kitsch

Shaolin Warriors
Lisner Auditorium
[presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society]
November 15, 2003

By Lisa Traiger
copyright © 2003 by Lisa Traiger

Cultural continuity may be why the Shaolin monks say they tour, sharing their spectacularly fearless, breathe catching kung fu techniques with Western audiences. The show they put on—and it definitely is a show—is two hours of tumbling tricks and hand-to-hand and armed weapons combat. Whips, axes, broadswords, spears, daggers, and even fans provide thrills and chills. Ever see a man mince bok choy on his stomach? How about a threesome who crack metal bars and wooden sticks in two on their foreheads? Or a man cracking two-handed double whips at the speed of sound? How about the guy who reclines on a bed of swords, a bed of nails above him and a cement block atop that. Then comes the sledgehammer down to crack that block in two. Talk about cringe inducing, spine tingling kinesthesia. All together now, let out a deep breathe.

But what makes the Shaolin monks so remarkable is that these men who devote themselves to their singular form of disciplined spirituality, fight like fearless bandits. Think Jackie Chan movies without the camera tricks and fancy director's cutting and splicing. This is the real stuff, flesh against flesh, flesh against steel, mind over matter, body over spirit. Before each task, the monks demonstrate their meditative technique: in a wide-stanced stand, eyes closed hands come together at the pelvis, sometimes as if holding an invisible egg. With a deep inhale, the monk raises his hands up to chin level then arms open out. In these few moments the monks are able to physically and psychically ground themselves and harness their energy and mental concentration in preparation for feats that should be inhuman.

When not on tour bringing this cultural experience to Westerners, the monks meditate in their monastery, practicing a form of Buddhism known as Ch'an (Chinese for Zen). The martial arts fighting system, called wushu, developed from yoga poses and animal imitations. The monks are quick to say their skills are only used defensively, never for aggressive use.

But now they are used for entertainment. This show is an extravaganza, with scenery, movie-soundtrack music, lights and props. At two points they even invite audience participation—including a passel of kids from the orchestra seats who are urged to follow along with one of the master teachers. Cute. And it's a great night out for the family. The producer even scheduled Saturday night's curtain for 7:00 p.m. to attract the family crowd, and they did sell out the house. American audiences have become accustomed to seeing a united nations of cultures used for entertainment purposes. And the folk and international companies have learned well the lessons of pleasing Westerners. Shaolin goes over particularly well with thrill seekers: The Hollywood fighting techniques, the disco-inspired sound track, the circus-like tricks—amazing balances, knees-behind the head flexibility, and plenty of well spaced pauses for applause.

No doubt contemporary commercialism has infiltrated even the 1,500-year-old monastery on Mount Shaoshi in central China's Henan province. The question, though, is whether what the monks bring to the West has a kernel of authenticity and whether Westerners can get anything other than sheer Hollywood thrills. For as Westerners we love the exotic, the Oriental, the other.

But the larger question is what if anything this type of homogenized "cultural exchange" does for Western audiences. What are monks—holy men who devote their lives to spiritual practice—doing touring the country bedding down in Best Westerns, perhaps even stocking up on discount Nikes at outlet malls? Should monks devote themselves to a higher calling? Or is succumbing to the Western consumerist culture, where by crisscrossing the country performing one and two-night stands the best way these men can support their monastic lifestyle at home in China. The Russians, the Hungarians, the Georgians even the Turkish whirling dervishes, paved this path before the Shaolin ever even thought to tour. But how quickly they learned. Since their first international tour in 2000, the Shaolin learned plenty about audience pleasing shows, attracting the right ticket-buying demographic and dazzling with an enviable display of rigorous tricks and fighting postures that shouts Hollywood movie excitement. The Shaolin monks have learned much from the West. But what have we, westerners, gained in return?

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 8
November 17, 2003

Copyright ©2003 by Lisa Traiger




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The Autumn DanceView is out:

New York City Ballet's Spring 2003 season reviewed by Gia Kourlas

An interview with the Kirov Ballet's Daria Pavlenko by Marc Haegeman

Reviews of San Francisco Ballet (by Rita Felciano) and Paris Opera Ballet (by Carol Pardo)

The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan Opera (by Elaine Machleder)

Reports from London (Jane Simpson) and the Bay Area (Rita Felciano).

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last updated on October 7, 2003