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Innovative kung fu musical staged in New York

Xinhua | Updated: 2019-07-11 08:48


A kung fu musical that tells a survival story of Chinese immigrants in New York City has been staged at the Big Apple's Hudson Yards neighborhood.

The experimental musical, Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise, tells the story of a secret sect in Flushing, Queens, that possesses the magical power to extend human life, and a twin brother and sister caught in the struggle to control it.

The production has drawn talent from around the world. It is directed by Chen Shi-Zheng and written by Kung Fu Panda's Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger. It features songs by Sia remixed by Bobby Krlic and Arca, movement choreography by Akram Khan and martial-arts choreography by Zhang Jun.

Fast-paced martial-arts sequences and contemporary and hiphop dance moves unfold in front of, around and above the audience in this original production designed specifically for the soaring, flexible space of The McCourt at The Shed, a newly opened center for artistic invention in NYC.

"I have been fascinated by martial arts since I was a boy-by their explosive energy, meticulous precision and flowing movements," says Chen, who adds that his passion was fueled by reading martial-arts novels, including many titles by Jin Yong (Louis Cha Leung-yung), one of the greatest authors of the genre.

When Chen was asked to make a new piece for The Shed, he showed Alex Poots, The Shed's artistic director, a video clip of Bruce Lee's first audition reel for Paramount Studios in 1964.

In that clip, Lee attempts to explain the basics of martial arts, which were largely unknown in the United States at the time. A half-century later, there are few fighting sequences in world cinema, superhero movies, television and theater that are not based on traditional martial arts.

Chen has always aspired to do a musical about Bruce Lee, but finding the right cast proved to be very difficult.

As an alternative, Chen cast an ensemble of performers who not only have strong physical abilities but are willing to put in hundreds of hours of training so that the integrity of martial arts is not sacrificed. He and the cast found a way to present martial arts in a new form, blending the fighting styles with dance moves that are not traditionally Chinese.

One of the cast members, Jasmine Chiu, who is a native of Hong Kong, says exploring the discipline of martial arts was both challenging and fascinating as she picked up movements she had never thought of before.

"Martial arts is so specific because it is for combat. You have to know the way that you attack and that everything is for a purpose," says Chiu.

It was her first time learning about martial arts, and Chiu felt grateful that she could take the opportunity to dedicate her performance to her late grandfather, Jin Yong.

The theme of immigration has been explored by many musicals on and off Broadway as it is a universal topic that most audiences in New York can relate to. Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise tries to approach the theme from a unique angle.

The musical is set in Flushing, where many Chinese immigrants live. It tells the story of an underground sect called the House of Dragon. The sect practices an ancient martial art in order to protect a secret treasure.

The main character, Little Lotus, was born and raised in a traditional household. Her journey to find herself led to betrayal, near death and resurrection. Eighteen years later, her twins, Little Phoenix and Little Dragon, grow up unknown to one another: one in a humble apartment in Flushing and the other in a penthouse on Fifth Avenue. Taught an identical martial art by their respective parents, the twins lead lives that are a mystery on many levels until the day they meet and discover their shared destiny.

Chen says the story was mainly about the hardship Chinese immigrants endure trying to settle down in a foreign country and the struggles they go through when they decide to preserve their own identities.

But Chen did not only cast actors with Chinese backgrounds or use lyrics that were only familiar to Chinese people. The "Chinese story" is presented by performers drawn from many backgrounds, and the music is composed by a Western pop artist because Chen believes that the "human experience is not exclusive but rather transcendental in nature".

"Like America at its best, Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise is about shared cultural values and experiences," Chen says.

The musical has been applauded by many as one that bridged Chinese and Western cultures since its world premiere in June.

Chinese consul general in New York Huang Ping says the production showcases the talents of Chinese artists on the world stage and presents the essence of the Chinese culture. He hopes the production team will create more works that prove popular with Chinese and US audiences.

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