Community introduced to extremes of Xiqu 

By Wendy Smith

A handful of actors from the most prestigious theatre school in China have come to Montreal to give a crash course in one of the world’s oldest cultural traditions.
For the first time, Concordia is offering a course in Chinese opera, or Xiqu, an art form that blends singing, dancing, miming, and acrobatic prowess with a dash of martial arts.

One of the visiting performers demonstrates costume and style. Magnifying glass

One of the visiting performers demonstrates costume and style.

Lu Suosen and students from the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts (NACTA) are teaming up with the Department of Theatre, the Centre for Continuing Education and Montreal’s Chinese community for an experiment in cultural cross-pollination.

“To have a real cultural exchange, you need to get into the culture and that takes a while, to get to know the people, the language, the imagery,” said theatre professor Robert Reid. “Once you have access to the codes and conventions, it’s absolutely beautiful. It’s a very poetic art form, without being kitschy.”

Judging by the enthusiastic response, the class is proving to be a hot ticket among both Concordia students and the wider Chinese community.

Seated in the multipurpose hall at Chinatown’s Montreal Chinese Community and Cultural Centre on a Friday afternoon, audience members craned their necks to get a better look at Suosen, who had donned a fake beard so long it almost dragged on the floor. As he twisted his body, the long beard arced around him like wisps of smoke curling from a stick of incense.

The accoutrements of Chinese opera are more than just eye candy - they are extensions of the actor’s body, Suosen explained.

Hence heavy hems droop to the ground, sleeves hang off the arm, boots tower on precariously high wedges that would intimidate a Spice Girl.

The actor needs to master the costumes during training. Most children destined for the Chinese Opera stage begin when they are five years old.

While the Concordia students don’t expect to become masters after a 12-week semester, they are impressed by the rich symbolism and tradition of Chinese opera and believe the class is helping them to expand their repertoire.

Said Jessica Ranville, a theatre performance major: “It’s really difficult. I’ve been pushed in this class like I’ve never been pushed before. The nature of the movements is the complete opposite of Western drama.”

Fellow student Molly Kidder agreed, adding: “Seeing theatre taken seriously like this is always something inspiring to see, especially in Canada. ”

In an interview before the class, Suosen said through a translator that although the art form is more difficult for Canadian students to pick up, they are “getting better” because of their hard work. Suosen also believes that “with deeper communication between the two universities, we can create a new art form, a combination of Western drama and Chinese opera.”

It’s all part of a recipe for what Reid calls “happy contamination.” That was his vision when he visited Beijing in June of last year and toured NACTA’s facilities. Concordia had signed an agreement with the school. Reid thought, “We have to do something. People would kill to have an agreement like ours - this is the best school in China.”

Next spring, Reid will bring some of his students to NACTA to spend a few months teaching the Western approach to drama. His ultimate goal is to mount an ambitious cross-cultural spectacle, directing a play plucked from the Western canon using all the trappings of Chinese opera. “It’s never been done before in the world.”


Concordia University