“Less is more” – this is not the slogan of Fancl’s commercial. It’s sad that the average Hong Konger should immediately associate this maxim with advertising instead of its origin in art: minimalism. Yet it seems inevitable considering the 3,000 ads bombarding us every day1 . Consumerism preaches material possessions in excess, the opposite to Director Tang Shu-wing’s philosophy of minimalism. To him, minimalism is both an attitude toward life and an aesthetic pursuit. Dubbed “Alchemist of Minimalist Theater”, he experiments with physical theater through a minimalist approach. His new production Thunderstorm, a pantomime of modern Chinese dance and physical theater, premiered on October 26, 2012 at theCulturalCenter.
Thunderstorm’s storyline was based on the namesake, a classic Chinese play:
When he was a young man, Zhou Puyuan, the patriarch of the Zhou family, defied class constraints and fell in love with a maid, Shiping, who bore him a son, Ping. The strict rules that governed feudal families, however, rejected the relationship. Shiping was banished from the Zhou residence, leaving their son to grow up with the father.
Later, Puyuan marries a wealthy girl Fanyi, who is only seven yearsPing’s senior. She bears Puyuan a son, Chong. Frustrated by the cold and loveless relationship between her and Puyuan, Fanyi turns her heart to the weak-willedPing. Shamed by the sexual relationship with his step-mother,Pingfinds the only saving grace in Sifeng, another maid. They love each other, and Sifeng is pregnant withPing’s baby.
Now Sifeng is none other than Shiping’s daughter by a later marriage. As Shiping comes to visit Sifeng, the love entanglements of two generations unfold. Shocked by the painful truth, Zhou Ping commits suicide; Sifeng and Zhou Chong are electrocuted in the thunderstorm. 2
As the alchemist adapted the literary masterpiece to an 80 mins show, all sets, choreography, costumes and sounds were refined to minimum, paradoxically enhancing the impact to an unprecedented maximum.
A silent 5-second countdown; each second one piece of furniture was illuminated: couch, bookshelf, dining-table, door frame, another door frame. The five wooden pieces made up the entire set.
Six dancers gathered around the couch, standing still, sitting straight. Fanyi freed her hands from her husband, turning to her lover and step-son Zhouping. Shamed by the incest, Zhouping reached out to his true love and future mother of his child Sifeng, who was pulled toward the arms of his half-brother ZhouChong. Meanwhile, Zhou Puyuan’s fingers crawled toward old lover Shiping, only to shy her away as she clasped her balms in a Buddhist fashion. All these intricate relationships were portrayed by the slightest movements in hands, so delicate that audience could easily miss one, yet so seamless a match with the secrecy and shame. In fact, this prelude appeared like the family’s funerary photograph: movements uninitiated, words unarticulated, feelings unreciprocated, truth unspoken. Everyone dressed in white, hinting at the tragic fate. The stillness was striking and silence uncomfortable, especially for audience who expected lots of turns, jumps, and running around in a dance theater. It is exactly this violent contrast, however, that accentuated the overwhelming power of body language in its simplest form.
Two pas de deux ensued with equal cleanness and effectiveness. As Zhou Ping confessed his love for Sifeng, the couple waltzed into a courtship routine. The constant mirroring in arms and torsos surrounded the pair with sweet embraces, and long gazes united them even when their bodies parted to opposite ends; two became one. The warm romance turned cold as Fanyi broke in, dictating Zhou Ping’s every step with forceful rushes and sudden pauses. Even when the two bodies entwined in seeming harmony, the lack of eye contact suggested conflict, in stark contrast to the previous pair’s fluidity that suggested mutual affection. The love triangle was connected with two simple props: Sifeng’s handkerchief exchanged with Zhou Ping during a hide- and- seek game, which later developed into a token of love; and Fanyi’s fan which symbolized her social status as a wealthy girl turned tai tai as well as the power struggle with her lover. Both sequences lasted less than two minutes, free of technical stunts or narrative gestures, yet the characters’ emotions were skillfully revealed, their relationships crystallized – a perfect combination of efficiency and effectiveness.
As the real identifies unveiled, the love entanglements exploded: Shiping’s motherly embrace to protect Sifeng, Fanyi’s jealous and revenging push against Sifeng, Sifeng’s ghostly wander out of fear, Zhou Chong’s passionate sprints followed by desperate spasm, and Zhou Ping’s escape from traumatic reality that sunk into paralysis. All misfortune traced back to Puyuan, who struggled to pick up the torn photograph of him and Shiping, holding onto the only happiness in his life- it was indeed all he had as all three youngsters died, Fanyi went mad, and Shiping became a nun. At the same time, he was frantically ripping it apart as if to destroy the root to catastrophe. With each dancer given only 30 seconds and two movements, the dance concluded with a fine finishing touch – short, simple, effective.
Threading the show was one iconic image, hidden faces: Fanyi’s face behind the fan as if denying herself as step-mother to her lover, Sifeng’s face behind the handkerchief as if concealing her identity as her lover’s half-sister, Puyuan’s face behind the photograph as if rejecting his past that resulted in so much misery for so many. In fact, during the family portrait- like prelude, all faces were “hidden” by the top down and back lights, masking their identities and the ugly truth. The rich symbolism behind iconic images makes them the primary tool of minimalism. They also stand out from most present-day images, including videos, paintings, plastic arts, audiovisual or synthesized images, which are “literally images in which there is nothing to see. They leave no trace, cast no shadow, and have no consequence.” 3
Minimalist theater “sets out to expose the essence or identity of a subject through eliminating all non-essential forms, features or concepts. The simpliest and fewest elements are used to create maximum effect.” 4 Inspired by Grotowski’s “Poor Theater”, Tang stripped all peripheral theatrical devices conventionally deployed to add spectacle, from lighting, sets, to costumes, and sounds. We saw no more than six bodies in cheongsam; we heard no more than two screams (zero dialog) against the background of thunderstorm. Instead, the focus was on the actors, their core personality, essential thoughts and innermost feelings. They became, as it were, naked in front of us.
The performers were half actors and half dancers by stage time division, in line with the show’s intended crossover between theater and dance. This was a major shift for Co-director Xing Liang, a choreographer famous for his elaborate style. This time, it was the dancers who composed the steps based on the play, which were then refined by Xing at workshops. The resulting dance thrived on vicarious characterization and deeply embedded plots. Minimalist theater places body language right at the center, leaning toward neither story- telling nor dance techniques. The essentials, and the essentials alone, create maximum impact.
Minimalism is not only an artistic approach, but attitude toward life. It becomes especially relevant in the materialistic world we live in dominated by advertisers, the new owners of “less is more”. As Chinese, we can better appreciate this maxim, drawing similarities to our own aesthetics principle of “liu bai” in ink painting: white space helps create balance in composition and enables subjects to integrate smoothly. Whilst the daily dose of 3,000 ads reduces us to bewildered eyes, stuffed ears and sluggish brains, the precious white space makes room for reflection, deliberation and imagination, which is what art all about.
1. Goodman E. Ads pollute most everything in sight. Albuquerque Journal. June 27, 1999:C3
2. New Vision Arts Festival house program
3. Jean Baudrillard, Transaesthetics, 2008