Posted on July 7, 2008
With the Olympics looming, cultural exchanges with China are everywhere. Jah Wobble-Chinese Dub cheerfully crams British musicians, Chinese dancers and singers onto the small stage of the rock and pop venue, Bush Hall in West London. The atmosphere is charmingly laid back. Traditional dancers from Hangzhou step carefully over the cables of Jah Wobble’s bass guitar, or join an encore with sweetly goofy western steps. There’s even room for Chinese opera spectacle, with masked dancers whirling to a mix of dub and folk music.
Jah Wobble, who got his nickname from the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious, has worked with musical styles from punk to fusion. Recent collaborators include the band Massive Attack and the singer Björk. This latest work, commissioned by the city of Liverpool as European Capital of Culture, puts Chinese melodies and instruments over western dub rhythms. It’s a happy mixture, voice and zither working over a deep, shuffling beat.
The show’s greatest spectacle comes from the Mask Changers. Their speciality comes from Sichuan opera, a traditional form known to be at least 300 years old. It’s also rare: there are fewer than 200 Mask Changers in China today. As with other Chinese opera styles, the movement is a mix of martial arts and dance. The two dancers kick their legs up past their ears, or lunge into aggressive poses. As they spin and pose, the masks change, quick as blinking. They can get through 20 in less than 20 seconds.
The change itself is like a conjuring trick: you can’t see how it was done. The mask changers wear intricate headdresses, gilded structures built high above the covered face. Hands do come close to the head, but seem not to touch it; little nods accompany at least some of the changes. But where do the new masks come from, and where do they go?
Some of the masks look like snarling traditional demons. One is a divided face, fierce and blue on one side, blandly pink on the other. Others are surprisingly modern: I was sure I saw Spiderman in there, if only for a moment. The two maskers end by showing their bare, beaming faces, then hiding them again. It’s truly spectacular, overshadowing even the fire-eater who introduces them.
The music draws on a number of Chinese styles. The Tibetan Gu Ying Ji has a strong, textured sound, moving from sighing lament to a wonderfully chirpy number about happiness. Wang Jinggi, from Yunnan Province, has an enormously forceful voice, belting out her winding, wailing lines. Both women wear elaborate traditional costume: embroidered robes, thick bead necklaces, astonishing headdresses. The Hangzhou dancers float through their numbers. Their style, a Tang Dynasty tradition, is delicate: gliding steps, arms curving into poses, trailing long sleeves or silk handkerchiefs.