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Unique class introduces Bejing Opera style

By : Rachel Coker

During a recent class, visiting faculty member Zhang Yanhong, far right, shows Carolyn De Melo, a sophomore English and Theatre major from Patchogue, how to perform stage combat using a “tschung,” a Chinese spear, with her partner, Lee Garrett, a senior E

Tucked away in a corner of the Fine Arts Building, a studio fills with the sound of wooden spears striking the floor. Students run through a routine unlike anything they’ve seen in other Theatre Department classes as two teachers call to them in a mix of Chinese and English.

It’s another afternoon of challenging movement and expression for the roughly 15 undergraduates who are taking Techniques of Peking Opera with Liu Mianzong and Zhang Yanhong, visiting faculty from the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts (NACTA) in Beijing, China.

Liu and Zhang are both experienced actors who have performed abroad before, but this is their first trip to the United States. Speaking through a translator who accompanied them from NACTA, they say they’re finding the Binghamton students active and enthusiastic.

“American students are open and positive,” Liu said. “They are interested in Bejing Opera and very excited. Everything is fresh in each class.”

That “freshness” presents some challenges, too.

“Because it’s a different culture, the students don’t know so much about Bejing Opera,” Zhang said. “There’s a need to explain the conventions of the opera.”

Liu said he has been impressed by the students’ enthusiasm and noted that they’re “not afraid of difficulties.”

The class represents the continuation of an academic exchange between the Theatre Department and NACTA. Last summer, Binghamton Professor Fred Weiss and a student assistant, Erin Stanley, taught jazz dance to opera and dance students at NACTA. The collaboration will continue in the spring with a Binghamton production of Romeo and Juliet using the Peking Opera techniques.

Liu has 41 years of teaching experience and continues to perform. Zhang, who began studying with the opera at the age of 12, also mixes teaching with performing. The two and their translator, Ma “Mary” Xuan, are spending a month in Binghamton as well as about two weeks traveling around the United States.

Back in class, Liu claps and gestures to the men, while Zhang calls out in English.
As the students run through a complex combination of movements with theatrical spears, she shouts “Wait! Go! Up! Down!”

Afterward, the instructors and their translator walk through the studio, helping students with elements of the routine. Some students are smiling and pushing sweaty tendrils of hair away from their faces; others frown with concentration.

Associate Professor Don Boros, who visited NACTA in 2004 and ’06, is serving as a liaison between the department and the Chinese visitors.

“This is one of the few cases where the word awesome can be applied the way it’s supposed to be,” he said. “The students are in awe of the discipline that’s necessary to do this.”

If You Go

A free demonstration of the Techniques of Peking Opera course will be held at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 11, in the Anderson Center Chamber Hall. Students will perform scenes in the stylized manner unique to Peking Opera. Included will be combat episodes and dance.

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Last Updated: 10/14/08