Two-thirds of the way through the “Shaolin Warriors” show, presented as part of K-State’s McCain Auditorium Series last Monday night, the Chinese performers made sure we knew how difficult it was for them to do what they had been doing on stage.
They—apparently wordlessly—invited up a couple of young men from the audience. Then a pair of performers demonstrated a series of karate moves or kung fu moves. The audience members were supposed to replicate the steps and crouches and punches and blocks— one at a time and in slow motion. But our fellow ticket- holders had trouble doing the stepping and crouching, even with teachers there on stage beside them.
Imagine how difficult it must have been to run through a series of these moves without any break or help. That was the message of the segment. It may have been that the slow and fast alternations in the actual performances made learning the routines even more difficult.
But, then, isn’t the same true of ballet, say? Martial arts shows are essentially dance shows for boys and young men. And this particular show, a version of one we have already seen the company perform during an earlier tour, makes what the performers are doing look relatively easy, if nonetheless spectacular.
The performance departed a little from the printed schedule in the program. Probably there were close to 16 different scenes reenacted before two painted curtains or in what looked like a courtyard in east Asia— the roof line and green tiles placed the set for us.
The performers varied their costumes a little as the show went along. Usually the bulk of them were in orange karate PJs, but sometimes some of them appeared bare chested or with one shoulder uncovered. More dignified robes set off senior characters. There were three or four changes of costume for the two kids whose childhood of training was followed by the program. While they were in white, the original young acrobats were replaced with full-grown men, signaling the end of the characters’ school days.
They learned kung fu skills mostly by watching their elders rehearsing moves. Most often the moves would be rehearsed by groups of two to 12 fighters, and usually they went through lists of movements in unison. Sometimes they mimicked fighting in pairs.
They worked out with weapons—18 of them in one segment—and with bowls they had to keep balanced on their burred heads. They snapped open fans and whirled flags. In one sequence they demonstrated their hardiness in ways Western magicians would have recognized—one chopped vegetables against his abs and one sprawled atop erect spears with a board of nails the next layer up, then another performer, and then a hunk of stone that was broken with a blow by a sledge hammer. The company also included a contortionist.
And then there was some silent ceremony replicated here, too, as one would expect. But it was silent only in that the performers were usually mute. There was a soundtrack running behind the action, some bits composed by Liu Junke and sounding strangely like the music for a spaghetti western. Two men also played drums up the stage from some athletic action. But the music, even including the chanting, seemed to have been per-recorded.
For comic relief, there was a first act audience participation sequence when perhaps a dozen kids were brought out of the crowd to mimic a series of moves taught them by one of the elders of this company of perhaps 20. The little kids were cute. Of course.
The show had two problems, neither of them the company’s fault. One was that we had trouble picking up the applause cues. We eventually decided that when a performer put his hands together as if to pray, that was when his bit of business was finished. But they used that gesture a lot.
The other problem was that K-State’s men’s basketball team was playing Wake Forest’s in the play-in round of the NCAA tournament at about the same time. But ticket-holders who missed the Shaolin Warriors show to see the first half of the game were punished with the biased and uninformed commentary of television analyst Clark Kellogg, an alum of Ohio University (I believe). Thankfully the Shaolin Warriors didn’t have to perform on the inexplicably slick floor in that basketball arena.