The Old Man and the Beard (part 2)
In last year’s program I had two character roles. One was Xiao He—top adviser to the first Han dynasty emperor and tutor of the never-defeated general Han Xin around 200 B.C.; another was Liu Yanchang—a scholar whom a goddess fell in love with and married on earth. Both these roles involved duet parts, so you could say I was unofficially a lead dancer who just didn’t happen to appear in the program book, though I didn’t mind that at all. This year, my main character role is an old abbot who appears for about 30 seconds to banish the drunk monk Lu Zhishen from the monastery.
Actually, for me, it doesn’t really matter what role I play, or where I am on stage. That’s for the choreographer to decide anyways. Even if I were placed in a far-back dark corner of the stage, I would still try to play my part, whatever it may be, to the best of my abilities. I think all my fellow dancers in the company feel about the same. This year I feel content, and yet still determined to be just as good a group dancer as a principal dancer. Besides, playing an old man with a beard is proving to be really cool!
Even though I only appear so briefly on stage in this role, I have to admit that for me these are the most enjoyable 30 seconds of the entire program. Why? Because I just get so much out of these 30 seconds. First, it’s a role that prompts me to really think about the character of the old abbot—the reactions and emotions he might be experiencing as he, the master of a well-disciplined monastery, sees one of his disciples come home utterly inebriated. The challenge is taking his mental script and miming it out in his every move.
I’ve gotten into the habit of thinking, before I walk onto stage every time, about how to make my movements and poses as clear as possible so as to concisely express what I want to say to the audience. Even a slight difference in the angle of the head would disturb the subtle flavor of the emotions being articulated and affect the precision of the dance narration. Maybe it doesn’t seem all that complicated to the audience watching (it’s only a few seconds, after all), but that’s what I muse over in the wings before the dance each day.
What I also enjoy about this role is the needlessness of having to break a sweat. But to be honest, what I enjoy most of all is the infinite pleasure of wearing a fake beard.
So, you ask, what’s so special about a fake beard? To you, it may just look like a piece of old flesh-colored mesh with strands of fuzzy black and white hairs sticking out, but to me this beard has a history—this is the very beard I wore for the ancient tutor Xiao He last year and it has stuck with me (literally) for some 100 shows.
After all of the performances we have been through together, man and beard, I’ve come to develop a kind of affection for it, and its lavender hairspray scent. With a silvery beard wrapped around my face, I feel like my mental age has more than quadrupled, and I’m transformed into a Chinese Gandalf the Grey. Without it, I find it harder to get into character and simply don’t feel as sagacious anymore.
Unexpectedly, the roles of Xiao He and the old abbot are shockingly similar. Both characters are old and wise. Both make an entrance from upstage left on the riser observing the drama happening center-stage. Both make a sudden interjection of surprise accompanied by a change of mood in the music, followed by an interaction with the main character—the great general Han Xin and drunk monk Lu Zhishen. And of course, both characters wear the same beard.
Instead of four little bullies who tease Han Xin, this story has four young monks who tackle and block Lu Zhishen from entering the temple. Instead of being impressed by Han Xin’s great humility and tolerance, this year I am shocked and disappointed at my disciple’s drunkenness. Instead of a square hat and a wide-sleeved purple robe typical of the Han era, this year I wear a “shaved head” and a brown monk robe from the Song dynasty.
Most ironic of all, my fellow dancer and friend Rocky Liao played both Han Xin last year and Lu Zhishen this year.
So as you can see, there are new things to be learned and fun to be had whichever role you are dancing—especially when it involves facial hair!
(to be continued…)