Calming the Chaotic Seas; Playwright: Mandu; Choreographer: Yang Yuntao; Actors and actress (from left): Christopher Ying, Pak Ching Ying, Wong Chun Fai; Photo: Hay Lee
Calming the Chaotic Seas is a play concerning the legendary figure Cheung Po Tsai in the chronicles of Hong Kong’s vivid history. The play written by Mandu is a collaborative union between Chung Ying Theatre Company and the Hong Kong Dance Company based on historical documentation and revealing the struggle of the human condition. Directed by Dominic Cheung and choreographed by Yang Yuntao, the play offered a moving reflection on the life of Cheung Po Tsai and glimpses into human frustration in the wake of fate and individual choices.
The story is one of passion, loss, intrigue, politics and betrayal. At 15, Cheung Po Tsai was sent by his parents to the notorious pirate leader Cheng I in exchange for their elder son who had been kidnapped by Cheng. Cheng treated Cheung as his own son and trained him up to be his partner. When Cheng was killed in a hurricane, Cheung reluctantly became the leader of the pirates. Cheung married Cheng’s wife, I Sao, and gradually expanded his sphere of influence in the South China Sea. This threatened the stability of the Qing Government who saw Cheung as the enemy. But based on mutual respect of each other’s outstanding leadership style, Cheung made friends with the Qing General-in-charge, Huang Biao. Remembering the country of his youth and on the advice of Huang, Cheung eventually surrendered to the Qing Government. Cheung as a pirate had enjoyed full powers but he was now assigned to an insignificant position in the navy. Cheung was now forced to attack the pirates who had previously been his partners. After he discovered that his entire family were sentenced to death by the Qing Government for their collusion with Cheng I, Cheung became a decadent with an addiction for alcohol and opium. Filled with unspoken regrets Cheung died, and Huang resigned. Cheung’s wife and son returned to Cheung’s hometown to live for the rest of their lives.
This legend is pared down to 19 scenes in this drama of the seas. The theater drama concentrates on Cheung’s feelings and reactions in the face of turbulent conflicts in his life. The stage action is centered around the ship and various land sites. These are suggested by movable wooden blocks and the movement of the revolving stage. Before the action begins and to the sound of Ronald Chin’s drumming music, a giant sail hangs down onto a dimly lit deck creating a mood of gloom and desolation.
In some scenes PepperScrims – highly transparent gauzes – are used for 3D holographic projections. A highlight is the fourth scene when Cheung Po Tsai and I Sao are chatting on the deck. Their conversation is played out against these gauzes with projections conjuring up vivid, wavy seas and suggesting a boat afloat in the sea.
Calming the Chaotic Seas; Playwright: Mandu; Choreographer: Yang Yuntao; Photo: Hay Lee
The drama and dance come together in the eleventh scene reaching an impactive climax just before the intermission with meticulously designed 3D animations including fierce gunfire, rough waves and fragmented bodies in the deep sea, with strong lighting to evoke the tension of fighting, and exciting music to set up the Battle at Chulocock Island. The dance creates a convincing depiction of the battle and includes only about ten actors from Chung Ying Theatre Company and eight dancers from Hong Kong Dance Company. All performers are dressed as pirates. Actors, though not dancing, are responsible for aligning up the wooden blocks into ragged and shifting patterns through which the dancers play out this bitter conflict and painful struggle. The intensity of the battle is captured in the final projected image of broken corpses falling down to the sea bed under blood red lighting. This climactic scene – with all performers eventually lying on the stage in silence - adds a disturbing weight to Cheung Po Tsai’s claim that he requires three days and nights to collect and to bury the corpses of his pirate partners after the battle.
The 3D holographic effect of stormy waters has already been seen in Hong Kong Ballet’s 2017 production of Le Corsaire at the Grand Theatre of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. This ballet is also interestingly a story involving pirates. The difference is that the holographic animations in Le Corsaire are simply for explaining the plot development. In Calming the Chaotic Seas the holographic technology is more sophisticatedly designed and assimilated into the fiery dance action.
Although one might ponder why only one side of the fighters are represented in this clash between the joint Qing-Portuguese navy and Cheung Po Tsai’s pirate group, it still does not diminish the image of the fierce battle and the perfectly marshalled arrangements of technical effects, acting and dance movement into the scene. It is an unforgettable dance scene.
Lee participated in Dance Enhance in 2015 and 2017, a dance appreciation and criticism writing program organized by the Hong Kong Dance Alliance. She is currently studying a Doctor of Applied Language Sciences program at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and has studied flamenco since 2009
Calming the Chaotic Seas
Choreographer: Yang Yuntao
Performance: 20 January 2019 15:00 Auditorium, Kwai Tsing Theatre