Chun Yi: The Legend of Kung Fu @ Coliseum, London

performed by
David Yip, Zhao Feng, Hu Cheng, Liu Feilong, Sun Chaojie, Qin Yan, Zhang Shengshan, Chen Wei, Zhang Rongrong, Du Longfei, Du Qiang, Zheng Xuejin, Sun Fachun, Wang Nan, Tong Jie, Wu Yongheng, Ma Dajun, Wang Kaige, Wang Jintao, Duan Menghai, Liu Ying, Feng Zhenhu, Wang Chunhan, Guo Feide, Wang Deyu, Li Zengzhuang, Wang Longhui, Liu Biao, Zhang Shaoxiong, Liu Haibao

directed by
Ray Roderick and Su Shijin
In Chun Yi: The Legend of Kung Fu the Coliseum has filled much of the gap left by its summer break from opera, and incidentally struck gold in the process.

Developed at the Beijing Red Theatre in 2004 by China Heaven Creation, the show has been seen by over two million people in China, and is now pausing for twenty-seven performances in London before going to Broadway and on a European tour.

Indeed, the speed of its travel across the world is surpassed only by that of the movements witnessed on stage. In the show, at least seventeen styles of Kung Fu are demonstrated by fifty performers, including five boys who are not yet fourteen.

As the curtain rises we see a man whose martial arts moves see his arms rip frenetically through the air with the speed of a bullet.
This sets the tone for the evening, as across two fifty minute acts, which feature both solo and ensemble performances, the pace rarely slackens.

Movements that would normally appear highly unnatural suddenly possess grace when performed so expertly. We see youths somersault backwards and land on their heads, and warriors jump straight-backed off the stage into the orchestra pit. Men writhe across the floor like snakes, alternately throwing their feet and bellies high in the air, whilst one soloist sits on the floor as he swings a chain below his body, rising once on each oscillation to allow it to pass beneath him. The ensemble performances are equally breathtaking and in the opening scene a man rolls beneath a line of twenty warriors, each leaping high in the air at just the right time to let him pass beneath them.

The framing device is the story of the path that the boy Chun Yi takes to enlightenment by learning the arts of Zen and Kung Fu, and this reveals much about Chinese culture and values. As he grows up, Chun Yi learns to become strong physically, but remains ill prepared to face the death of his mother, to resist alluring women, and to stop his growing strength from leading to a growing ego.

He does, however, finally succeed in becoming a warrior for peace following self-punishment (a concrete slab is smashed over him as he lies on three blades, a further bed of nails and person resting on his chest) and meditation. Whilst the plot, however, might seem clichd, Broadway director Ray Roderick is right to argue that Kung Fu’s central message that ‘the stronger you become, the more responsibility you have to those around you to create peace’ is also a universal one.

In fact, Roderick has been instrumental in shaping the show we see today, and in 2006 he introduced a greater narrative element, with an old master (a splendid David Yip) telling the story of Chun Yi to a young boy (Zhao Feng) about to embark on a similar journey. This aids the show’s structure, and allows Feng to contribute some beautiful Chinese singing to complement Han Lixun’s sumptuous set (featuring a large traditional Chinese bridge), Zheng Bing’s score (based on traditional Chinese music), and Song Li’s dazzling costumes.

The only people who might not enjoy this show are those who do not find the Chinese performance style engaging, there being no obvious attempts to build up tension before each ‘trick’, and virtually no pauses for applause. To me, however, the straight performances require no superfluous razzmatazz, and also reflect Chinese values. This is an unindividualistic society, in which people dedicate their lives to martial arts and the circus for the art’s sake, and not the personal glory. In the show, the old master describes the need to obtain ‘wisdom free from ego’. One might similarly say that these performers have achieved ‘perfection’ free from any sense of self-importance.

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