Robert Lepage's The Blue Dragon wings back to new Shanghai

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      In the opening scene of The Blue Dragon, the character played by Robert Lepage picks up a calligrapher’s brush and draws, in bright red ink, the Chinese character for the number one. Unlike its Roman equivalent—a bold upright stroke, symbolizing the solitary individual—this line is horizontal. It’s a number, but at the same time it’s the horizon, and, by inference, the visible world: all, quite literally, is one.

      A more startling metaphor for Asian belief systems, from Confucianism to Buddhism, would be hard to imagine. And it’s typical of Lepage to find such a beautifully concrete way to express a subtly abstract thought, for that’s been a hallmark of the Quebec-born actor, writer, and director’s work ever since he jumped onto the international stage with The Dragons’ Trilogy in 1985.

      The Blue Dragon, which SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts presents at the new Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre from February 2 to 27, is essentially a sequel to Lepage’s initial trilogy. It stars the same central figures, Pierre Lamontagne and Claire Foríªt; was created with the same costar and cowriter, Montreal actor Marie Michaud; and deals with similar themes of identity and belonging. Everything else, however, has changed. The Blue Dragon is set in Shanghai, not an imaginary China of the mind. Lamontagne and Foríªt are now middle-aged: he’s questioning the worth of his work as a gallery owner, and she’s hoping to compensate for her childless career path by adopting a Chinese baby. And complicating the relationship between the two former lovers is the presence of Lamontagne’s Chinese girlfriend, played by Singapore-based dancer Tai Wei Foo.

      The characters had no idea, 25 years ago, that this is where their lives would lead—and neither did Lepage, he says.

      “I think that we had the impression, when we did The Dragon’s Trilogy, that we were doing something that was kind of sealed,” says Lepage, calling from Montreal, where he’s working on a collaborative project with Cirque du Soleil. “We thought that it was a compact, complete story, and after that we just moved on to other stuff. But 25 years later, I was curious to know what happened to Pierre Lamontagne—and also what happened to China.”

      In the original production, Lepage admits, Lamontagne was very much his surrogate: a naive young artist willing to make sweeping statements and ambitious plans, seemingly without the wherewithal to back them up. Now, of course, Lepage is a luminary of the international theatre scene, and he’s using his character to investigate what might have happened had only a few of his dreams come true.

      “He’s a bit the contrary of who I am,” Lepage notes. “He’s 50, but he’s bitter and jaded, and I don’t think I am. It was kind of cool, I think, to find that out.”

      There’s more going on in The Blue Dragon than Lepage’s curiosity about the path not taken, however. By making Lamontagne a figure in Shanghai’s bustling art scene, he’s able to examine both the oppositional culture that emerged in China following the Tiananmen Square massacre and the glittering promise of the country’s 21st-century economic boom. At the same time, Michaud’s character embodies nationalist concerns about Quebec’s future: with support for separatism waning and the birth rate falling, what will francophone Canada look like in another 25 years?

      The Blue Dragon, at first glance, looks like a very ordinary psychological-drama kind of thing, where this guy is visited by this ex-lover of his,” Lepage explains. “They have big confrontations about who they were and what they’ve become. It’s a lot about Quebec identity, and it’s a lot about Canadian identity and all that. But it’s all set in Shanghai, so we use Shanghai as a sort of sounding board for whatever conflicts that the characters have.

      “We try to keep the story simple,” he adds, “but there are little doors within this very simple story that open into these deeper subjects.”

      Of course, The Blue Dragon will be delivered with lashings of Lepage’s trademark technical wizardry: its story might be straightforward, but its sleek look depends on the latest advances in lighting and digital projection. Even so, when attempting to explain his new work Lepage finds himself returning to where the piece begins, with the world’s oldest multimedia art form.

      Calligraphy, he explains, encompasses both writing and painting. “It’s a concept that we don’t have,” he continues. “When you understand Chinese, you understand that, yes, it is a phonetic system, but it’s also a visual way of putting things into pictures”¦.So if a westerner wants to understand an eastern culture, the first shock you get is that everything is written in a different manner. You have to learn how to decipher that, and then that brings you into the whole Chinese mythology and Chinese philosophy. And so it brings you very, very far—and I think it puts you in a more honest place to tell a story that takes place in China, if you start there.”