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October 16, 2009

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And now for Shaolin kung fu - the musical

KUNG fu meets music, dance and extravagant stage effects in what may be China's first martial arts musical. Wang Jie reports. Said to be the first theatrical combination of Shaolin kung fu, musical theater and dance, the martial arts musical spectacle, "Soul of Shaolin," will run from October 29 to 31 at the Shanghai Theater Academy.

The show was performed 24 times on Broadway in January and nominated for a Tony Award.

The 90-minute extravaganza is set in ancient China and tells the story of Hui Guang, a baby separated from his mother.

Found and raised by monks in the legendary Shaolin Temple in Henan Province, the precocious Hui is trained in the ways of kung fu.

He becomes a kung fu master, undertakes a journey of self-discovery and eventually is reunited with his mother.

"Fusing a special scenario into the traditional Shaolin kung fu is a way to elevate its image, otherwise kung fu is always about fighting or showing off," says Ye Jianqiu, the show's marketing manager.

The show took five years in preparation and was well received on Broadway early this year, he says.

The performance encompasses Chinese boxing, sword fighting and combat with other ancient weapons, like the whip.

The highlight comes when two martial artists are fighting on 20, two-meter-high platforms.

"Sometimes the on-site visual impact is amazing," says Xue Baojun, executive director of the show. "You can't imagine the audience's excitement.

The show's 30 Chinese actors are mostly athletes trained in Shaolin.

But turning martial artists into performers was difficult.

"At the very start, they could only fight instead of performing on stage," Xue says. "But the 'Soul of Shaolin' is a martial arts spectacle with a story and vivid characters. Kung fu athletes need to express inner feelings, like agony and joy through kung fu movements."

For example, Hui demonstrates "drunken boxing" to express his inner conflicts.

"Kung fu is an emotional release that allows the actors to 'speak'," Xue says.

Apart from training athletes in basic acting, Xue also focused on the music and stage design.

So why did it lose the Tony Award? "It was because of our music which wasn't impressive enough, and we didn't have big names," Xue says. "Just imagine the public enthusiasm if Jet Li played the main role?"

Xue cites "Les Miserables," a Tony Award winner in 1987 (best musical, best score and other honors), a drama that has been performed for years.

"'Les Miserables' adjusts from time to time to cater to audience's taste. Today it's a masterpiece with good box office sales.

"We also need to polish 'Soul of Shaolin' in its music and stage design, and that takes a lot of money. But we are still confident we can build it into a Chinese masterpiece," he says.

Their experience on Broadway was an education.

"You can't imagine how keen they (Westerners) are on every small detail," says Xue. "The props and sets are perfect. We really need to learn from their attitude."

However, Xue also admits Westerners seem more interested in "Soul of Shaolin" than Chinese.

"Perhaps Chinese people are too familiar with Shaolin kung fu," Xue says. "But I'm sure that if they watch the show, they will find it's totally different from films or TV series about martial arts."

The popularity of Shaolin kung fu also stems from its tradition that stresses virtue and goodness of heart, trains both temperament and body.

Says Xue: "That's the real charisma behind Shaolin kung fu."

Date: October 29-31, 7:30pm

Address: 630 Huashan Rd

Tickets: 180-380 yuan

Tel: 962-388, 6248-5600


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