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Chinese traditional opera students unlock their inner cabbage

A Belgian physical comedy team visits a traditional Chinese opera school, and East and West compare acting notes on getting the message across. It's hilarious, reports Xu Wei

What happens when Chinese students of traditional opera - its stylized gestures enshrined through the ages - are asked to act spontaneously, run around, pretend they're a head of cabbage or a can of soda?

The result is hilarious.

And so it was on Wednesday when Belgian comedy artists Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon, a couple in real life and a duo on stage, visited the Traditional Opera School of the Shanghai Theater Academy.

They held a physical performance class and later were shown traditional opera postures and gestures and asked to guess at what they represent.

The couple's dark comedy film "Rumba" has been screened at the sixth French Film Panorama and they screened the French-Belgian coproduction for opera students.

Then, Abel and Gordon turned to their specialty, physical comedy. They asked students to run around the classroom, do some warm-up exercises and walk in different postures, imagining something was pulling at their bodies. They were also told to use their body language to "play" a can of soda and a head of cabbage.

"When they stopped running, I asked them to keep that 'dynamic' feeling," says Abel. "Exercises can help develop self-control and communication skills, and the eyes can convey different moods.

"Oriental opera and Western theater have some commonalities in acting," says Abel. "But our performance seems to have more flexibility and freedom. We don't rely on stylized body language."

In the 77-minute independent film "Rumba," there are no big stars and only around 20 lines of dialogue. Abel and Gordon not only performed but also were the scriptwriters and directors.

It's a story about a couple with a passion for Latin dancing. They spend their weekends dancing in all regional Latin dance competitions and their house is full of trophies. One night, after a victorious performance, they are involved in an automobile accident that turns their lives upside-down.

The couple has many years' experience as stage actors and directors of several short films. Their roots in physical comedy were the inspiration for their first feature film, "Iceberg."

It's about a desperate housewife who leaves home after realizing that her husband and two children don't care about her.

"Our heroes have always been Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton," says Gordon.

"Their ingenious story-telling method and colorful body language are comparable to those in the period of silent movies," says Ping Hui, head of distribution from Fundamental Films, an organizer of the couple's trip. "They are outstanding descendants of Chaplin's style of comedy."

The couple say their next film will probably be about a night watchman on an unusual night.


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