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Conventions, Fundamentals of Acrobatic and Combat Skills and Special Skills

Rich Conventions

Each of the four means of expression in opera (singing, dialogue, acting and combat has its own conventions.

Following are some of them:

Self Introduction When a character first appears, he introduces himself. This introduction is composed of the opening words, a poem and a dialogue. When the person playing the main role steps onto the stage for the first time, he recites or sings some verses expressing his state of mind, situation, social position, experience, disposition, interests and aspirations. After that, he recites a four-line poem (each line always has seven characters) in which he explains the special situation he is in, and his thoughts and feelings. Then he recites the names of the other characters, their roles, their native places, the families they come from and the situation they face. This traditional convention is sometimes omitted from new operas.

Baolongtao (walk-on) gets its name because the soldiers, servants and maids in imperial palaces always wear special longtao robes. In opera, several people on the stage wearing such robes represent tens of thousands of soldiers, citizens, etc. In general, four people are treated as one longtao group, and there may be one or two groups of four on the stage at the same time to represent a crowd. These men or women always follow their masters, and their appearance and disappearance are useful for indicating changes of location and atmosphere. Other conventions governing such changes include the appearance of two dragons or four doors, and the pulling off of boots. These changes are accompanied by special music or singing. In court scenes the longtao shout loudly to indicate the solemnity of the atmosphere.

Qiba (setting off for battle) got its name because it was used first in the Ming Dynasty opera One Thousand Pieces of Gold. Fully armed soldiers set off for battle in the old days. It concentrates fundamental actions and dancing skills in order to demonstrate the prowess of generals and soldiers.

Horse riding is symbolized by an actor turning around, brandishing a whip, simulating reining in or beating a horse, and striking poses on the stage. The movements to demonstrate galloping on horseback can be complicated or simple, depending on the demands of the plot. There are several forms of horse riding: by a single person by two people or by several people. The movements are powerful and agile, and demonstrate different characters and atmospheres. Horse riding has different names in different Operas, and comprises different movements.

Walking conventions cover those which are meant to indicate night patrols or journeys, secret attacks and fleeing. Walking can be by a single person, two people or a group. Walking with singing is called noisy walking, while that without singing is called dumb walking. Walking has different names in different operas and involves different movements.

Dangzi is the conventional way of representing battle, which can be with or without weapons. It involves three or more people on each side. The names of dangzi are different according to the number of people involved in the battle. It is called sangudang with three people on each side, and sigudang with four people on each side, etc. There are conventions for the location on the stage and the steps of the characters. Sometimes the number of the people on the stage can increase (four people on each side at the beginning, then six people, eight people and even more. With more than three people it is called jundanzi (group fight).

Couple is a convention for acrobatic fighting involving two people, with or without weapons. Fighting without weapons is called fist fighting, while fighting with the same weapons involves broadswords or spears. Fighting can involve a broadsword against a spear, a broadsword against two broadswords, a broadsword against two normal swords, a broadsword against a spear, a cudgel against a spear, etc. Skills with Such weapons are called bazi skills.

Shaxiaochang (walking away fr0m the battlefield) is a ban skill. It portrays the high spirits of the winner 0f a battle. There are several kinds of shaxiaochang involving winning with a spear, with a broadsword and with Cudgels.

Carrying a sedan chair is done by three people, one behind the other The middle pers0n is Supp0sed to be the passenger, With their hands 0n their shoulders, the carriers stand up slowly and step as though they are carrying a heavy burden. All three must coordinate their steps and movements. When they are Supposed to be ascending a slope, the carrier in front straightens his b0dy, while the 0ne behind bends his knees. When the sedan descends a sl0pe, the carrier in front bends his knees, while the one behind sh0uld straighten his body. While walking on a rough and bumpy road, the carriers should bend and straighten their knees to mimic the rise and fall of the sedan chair.

Paoyuanchang is a convention symbolizing a long journey. The actor circles the stage, sl0wly at first and then m0re quickly. The steps should be small, even and swift, and the upper part 0f the body should be held stiff.

To demonstrate modern life and recreate today-s images, progressive actors and actresses have derived nutrition from other kinds of arts. They have formed their own conventions for b0dy movements for new 0pera works, especially modern operas and operas connected with minorities.

Basic Skills

The basic skills include dance movements, and special acrobatic movements while singing or reciting. It is very important for all opera actors and actresses to master these basic skills.

The following are the main basic skills:

Waist and leg exercises are necessary for developing the ability to do leaps and somersaults. Dances and acrobatics call for supple waists, so that the performers can control their centers of gravity. Waist and leg exercises include somersaults, swaying from right to left and from left to right, kicks, leg stretching and pulling, and upward straightened leg movements.

Tanzi (carpet) skills are the skills needed to make all kinds of somersaults, leaps, jumps and falls. It got the name because practice is carried out on a carpet or rug. Most movements are done with the hands placed on the ground or with leaps and jumps. Included are four-directional somersaults. (Fig.5-8)

Bazi (bundle) skills are combat techniques. Stage weapons include the broadsword, spear, sword, long-handled ax, hook, fork and staff. Comat skill fall into three categories. The first is the use of long weapons such as the broadsword, long-handled spear and staff. The second is the use of short weapons such as the sword, double swords and dagger The third is barehanded. Combat can be either serious or funny. The former emphasizes the characters of the antagonists, while the latter shows off the skills of the performer. Both require that the fighting be emotional, rhythmical and conventional.

Fan skills are body techniques. The fan used on the stage is a special property used to express many kinds of meanings and situations. All roles utilize the fan, which is most important for the xiaosheng and huadan. (Fig.5-9)

Handkerchief skills are also body techniques originating in a song- and-dance duet popular in northeast China and developed from Jiqu Opera. Traditionally, the handkerchief had either four corners or eight. It can be waved and turned inside out, shaken, held up, kicked, thrown or propped up with a finger. In the past few years other kinds of handkerchiefs have appeared on the opera stage.

Beard skills are body techniques too. The actor can manipulate his beard to express a variety of feelings, including pushing, pulling, holding up, spreading, tearing, throwing, shaking, circling and blowing. Some of these actions are done at the same time. All these techniques are required to match the dance movements in order to correctly express the feelings of the character.

Cap wing skills involve manipulating the wings of the gauze cap. With the neck as the axis, the actor moves the wings of the cap up and down, twirls them, or moves them to the left or right, or from the front to the back. Sometimes, he makes just one of the two move. The actor makes them move or stop moving to indicate contradictory feelings, hesitation or sudden joy, etc.

Hair swinging skills are techniques for a male role. Swinging the hair is a special movement to express the abnormal feelings of the character or +/9 situation the character is in, such as fear, sadness, hatred, running away or in death throes. The techniques include swinging, circling, twisting and spreading over the face or up in the air.(Fig.5-10)

Sleeve skills are the lavish, dance-like movements made with flowing sleeves. There are dozens of movements, likened to clouds, flowing water, cotton fields, waves, wheels and towers. Sleeves whirled in a wheel-like or flying movement exaggerate the feelings of characters. Holding up, spreading, throwing, shaking and flicking are favorite movements. (Fig.5-11 )

Lingze skills involve the manipulation of the two long pheasant tail feathers worn on warriors' helmets. They include shaking and swinging. Such techniques are used in many roles, but especially in the xiaosheng role. Sometimes the feathers are shaken with one hand, sometimes with two. Together with head and body movements, the movements of the feathers express mental feelings and dispositions such as surprise, hatred, happiness and frivolity. (Fig.5-12)

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