Classic forms and new paths at the Richmond World Festival

New-media artist Sammy Chien and Cantonese opera performer Rosa Cheng speak to the breadth of the event

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      Few events feature an art form as old as Cantonese opera, with its roots in the 12th century, alongside an interdisciplinary performance using cutting-edge interactive digital technology.

      But that speaks to the breadth of the Richmond World Festival, a celebration of the vast artistic influences that have been rolling into the region with immigrants from around the globe.

      Take artist Rosa Cheng, who immigrated here 40 years ago from Hong Kong and works to preserve an ancient art form from her homeland. Or consider Sammy Chien, who came here from Taiwan as a preteen just over a decade ago and now uses high-tech projections to express his experiences as a newcomer.

      Both aim to use the fest to speak to audiences far beyond their own ethnic groups.

      Even in the case of Cantonese opera, with its rarefied mix of singing, dancing, martial arts, traditional stringed instruments, and gongs, Cheng’s group is determined to educate—including using either printed surtitles or spoken English translations during the shows and holding on-site workshops.

      “It’s a learned experience, and gradually you will learn to like it,” says Cheng, artistic director and performer at the Vancouver Cantonese Opera, which has been around for 16 years and performs two large productions in the region each year. “I have Canadian friends and they can’t speak the language [Cantonese], and yet they come back again and again.”

      The group is hosting the Bamboo Theatre at the festival, naming the stage for the giant temporary structures built from bamboo in the villages of southern China and around Hong Kong. Those towns would pool their money to bring in opera troupes during festivals.

      Without the proper materials or the techniques needed to erect the incredible, nail-free buildings, the VCO is instead trying to re-create their atmosphere in an outdoor stage. “We will decorate it with lanterns and red ribbons similar to the way they decorated in that time,” Cheng says, referring to the early 20th century.

      If you’re in Minoru Park during the VCO’s performances, which will feature a mix of short pieces from Beijing and Cantonese opera, you’ll likely hear the pulsing percussion first. “A lot of Canadians will go and say, ‘This is so noisy with all the gongs and cymbals.’ But they symbolize all the movement: we have special rhythms for drinking wine or kneeling down or for the first time the audience sees a character,” Cheng explains, describing those driving beats as the “heartbeat” of the art form.

      That unusual musical sound is one of the reasons Cheng says Cantonese opera takes understanding.

      With that in mind, the troupe is devoted to demystifying the art form, with an on-site tent featuring demonstrations in makeup (the opera is known for its pale white faces with red that flows down from the eyes), costumes, and performance techniques (like ma dang zhi, a horse-whipping sequence).

      In an art form where it’s often said a minute on-stage takes 10 years of training, it’s clear that while visitors won’t be learning it overnight, they’ll at least have their world opened up to its beauty.

      The VCO will also host different art forms from around the world at its Bamboo Theatre—including Polynesian, South Asian, and other ensembles—making for a constant cross-pollination throughout the festival.

      The Vancouver Cantonese Opera’s Rosa Cheng works to preserve her homeland’s art form.

      Using groundbreaking new technology rather than a historic style, media artist Sammy Chien, too, seeks to speak to a wide range of groups at the fest.

      Performing at the Your Kontinent Digital Carnival on the site, Chien will be using an interactive, real-time audio-visual software technology he worked with this summer in Germany—a program that turns his every move on-stage into projected computer-generated sound and imagery.

      “It knows when your fingers are moving and when your left shoulder and right hip are moving, so you’re making music with the body,” he says, adding that those sounds in turn spur more movement, and generate the live, manipulated video. “The body becomes this whole system that cycles and interlocks together.

      “It’s pretty much structured improvisation,” he says. “For me, with the show, I don’t really know what’s going to happen and I’m pretty happy about that! With new media, it sometimes gives you things you don’t expect and I like to take those errors and comment on them.”

      Like Cheng, Chien is helping to demystify his artistic language for the audience. Throughout the piece, he talks about the program he is using and what he’s doing with it. He also weaves in stories from the distant and recent past. In one sequence, he performs a “finger dance”—a sort of B-boying he does solely with his hands—that he invented as an isolated youth who had immigrated here.

      “When I was 13 or 14, I lived in a small town and I didn’t know a lot of English, and as an Asian male you will go through a lot of bullshit.…So the finger dance really talks about that; I break-dance with them. It was kind of a friendship with my own hands while coping with this loneliness I had to go through. Then—boom!—I was the cool kid in school.”

      Interestingly, that story ties into experiences he’ll share from his recent residency at Lake Studios Berlin, in a town outside the city that wasn’t exactly used to seeing people of Asian descent around. Chien says he could never go out to eat without eliciting stares and getting asked about where he was from. “After five hours of studio work, I just wanted to eat and relax. So I felt very vulnerable. I’m just here to relax and eat! So then I didn’t go out anymore. I just cooked food in my apartment. So I’m isolated again and that brings all that back [from childhood].”

      Happily, that all changed for Chien near the end of his study trip, with the arrival of a half-Japanese artist. “It was like a bromance!” he says with a laugh. “When I walked with him, it was like two freaks walking together, two outcasts. But it was the power of two!”

      In his show, Chien weaves all of that into the theme of the festival, water, and the idea of immigration flowing in waves. He also compares the idea of technology, which can either help us or destroy us, to water: for his piece, he’s been inspired by the quote from Confucian philosopher Xunzi: “Water can carry a boat; it can bury a boat.”

      “I’m going to start with something very beautiful and slow,” he explains, adding he’ll be drawing from traditional qi gong. “There will be the illusion that I’m actually moving my energy through the screen.” Eventually, the technology will start to glitch, he says. “When I get frustrated, I’m really going to start to work with it. It gets loud and glitchy, loud and rhythmic.”

      Ultimately, he hopes to show fest audiences not just the new potential for technology in art, but also what it feels like to be treated as different in a society. “In the end, I want them to feel like they’re going home with something. They may think of me being alone. A lot of the Richmond demographic is immigrants, and we’re here to coexist together. I want them to think about that.”

      The Richmond World Festival takes place Saturday (September 3) in Minoru Park.