Watching Jingju Behind the Stage Curtains

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I am huge fan of Jingju, commonly known as the Beijing Opera, a type of performance art combining singing, dancing, martial art, visual art and literature. It first originated from North of China, then became popular all over the country. My motherland Tianjin, is the hometown of this art. I grew up with Jingju theatre right next to my door step. Watching Jingju with my granddad was one of the most memorable events of my life. Jingju was everywhere during my childhood. People would sing Jingju to the music of an Erhu (Chinese zither) in parks. Everyone in Tianjin knew something of Jingju and almost everyone can hum a little tune.

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This year China National Jingju Company came to Peacock Theatre, bringing the well-known The White Snake and The General and the Prime Minister to London. As such a huge fan as I am, I watched all four performances: two in the stall seats and two at the backstage. I felt extremely privileged to watch from the backstage of the theatre, especially excited as the performances were the best one could get from China. This is basically ‘Bolshoi’ of China.

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At the backstage, I was like a curious puppy, jumping about trying to see and learn as much as possible. At the same time, I was trying to be extremely quiet and cautious, worried of disturbing the actors. As I casually perform opera sometime as well, I was very eager to gain any new techniques, be it make-up or costume. I noted down the brand of their make-up, the design of their costumes, trying to replicate for my future use. It is very hard to source these things, even in China. The ‘Prima Donna’ of the show was the best Mei Style Jingju performer Li Shengsu. She simply looked stunning in her costumes. Her voice was so perfect, and full of emotions, that pierced right through one’s heart. Although at the age of 49, her face hasn’t shown any signs to reflect that, and her martial art skills are still as good as those youngsters in the troupe.

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As I watched Li coming up and down from the stage, I appreciated her meticulous attitude and attention to details. At one scene change, when all stage lights were turned off, she pointed out  to the stage crews to shut the backstage door next to the entrance, to avoid light reflecting in.

“Ten Minutes on the Stage, ten years of work behind the stage.”

This is what we usually say in China. What we see on the stage, although looks so effortless and perfect, probably involved years of blood, tears and sweat.

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I was also very fortunate to witness the actors warming up for the performance. Jingju involves many acrobatic movements throughout the performance, so it is crucial for actors to stretch out and get familiarised with the stage.

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Different kind of experience

I loved the whole experience of watching backstage. Despite I could not see the full performance, peering through the curtains. I saw show in a completely different perspective. It was not simply an art anymore, it was also science requiring precised planning, organisation and deliverance. It involved a whole team of people I would not normally see by just being an audience.

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Acknowledgement: Kevin Zhang, director of Sinolink Productions