THE Chinese characters may be pronounced the same, but their meaning can be said to be worlds apart — one embodying force and the other grace.
For Lee Wushu Arts Theatre, however, “martial” and “dance” are but two sides of the same coin. It is born of the vision of founder and artistic director former national athlete Lee Swee Seng, who views wushu — the Chinese martial arts that he has dedicated his life to — as a discipline that has the characteristics of performing arts.
When he was 18 , he reached a crossroads in his life and pondered on the future he might have in wushu and whether he should pursue a tertiary education and get a normal job. Despite discouragement by family and friends, Lee decided to go with his passion.
“There’s a Chinese phrase that says ‘man needs dreams to achieve greatness’,” said the soft-spoken young director, who hails from Johor. Amidst the gruelling demands of competing at a professional level, Lee was already thinking of longevity. His pondering and research led him to the knowledge that the ancient form of Chinese martial arts was already imbued with performance elements.
He said the proof is in the movements of wushu, many of which mimic animals or human behaviour such as the drunken fist, monkey fist and eagle claw fist. On top of that, history also records that sword dances were performed for the emperor or as a celestial ritual.
Near the end of its 16th year, it is perhaps fated for Lee Wushu Arts Theatre to present its latest “wushu fusion” show — A Decade’s Sword.
“The sword was never my favourite weapon, nor my best during my years competing in tournaments,” admitted Lee with a laugh, but somehow that weapon has appeared over and over again in his work, as he pointed out, most noticeably in the company’s largely successful award-winning production of Farewell, My Concubine in 2011, where the sword was a prominent symbol.
“We call the sword the nobleman among hundreds, as among all the weapons, it is a gentleman,” he added, explaining that it is symbolic of the spirit of justice, loyalty, bravery and honesty.
Futuristic touch meets ancient art form
The show promises to be much more than just an hour’s worth of sword-wielding performance. It’s not so much the weapon but the spirit of the swordsman that A Decade’s Sword will be presenting. In fact, the actual sword doesn’t appear until the end.
“It’ll be too boring. In our performance, we interpret the swordsman as a sword personified. Just like how they must wield the weapon masterfully, it is the spirit of the one holding it that comes alive,” explained Lee.
That gives the artistic director room to explore various cross-mediums and elements, including contemporary dance and visual effects. The opening sequence will feature wooden sticks tied with a long red cloth. Replacing sticks as swords, the performers will have more space to imagine and create with physical imagery, which will be enhanced with Western dramatising techniques.
Setting the stage as a calligraphy canvas in pure white, Lee said he invited famous Melaka calligrapher Pang Heng Khan to join forces with the company’s 12 performers and a classical guqin — an ancient Chinese seven-string zither — musician to create a particular sequence that he described as “poetry coming alive”. On top of that, collaboration with Hong Kong video artist Adrian Yeung will see the “qi” of the sword artistically given expression to, with a light residue effect with every movement.
Reflecting upon the progress of the vision he first only imagined, Lee felt that their re-interpretation and exploration can develop into a uniquely Malaysian cultural art form.
“Ancient wushu may be from China, but this is proudly Malaysian art,” said Lee with quiet pride.
The confidence wasn’t always so secure. Set up in 1998 as a one-man outfit, Lee was a young upstart — albeit a qualified one with certification from the national association — going from school to school to meet principals in Johor Baru to convince them to start wushu classes which he would teach.
Rejection was swift and plentiful, especially when it wasn’t a popular sport in schools compared with say, taekwondo. But from one school and then two, Lee produced results and soon others came calling. Today, the education branch of the company teaches in over 20 schools in the southern part of the peninsula, from primary to secondary, vernacular to national, and also Chinese independent schools.
From self-defence to expression
Years of trial and error brought about the setting up of Lee Wushu’s professional performing arts troupe in 2009, after he had immersed himself first in drama, Chinese opera, contemporary dance and other forms of art. On top of that, Lee had to re-visit his knowledge of wushu and its movements, as the emphasis for competition and performances are vastly different.
“The move is no longer just that. Now you have to incorporate emotions, intent, and how you express the move,” the martial arts exponent explained. A long way from his first show in 2001 where it was basically just “wushu with some music and lighting”, Lee made progress each show at a time, totalling 14 productions now.
After seeing results in Johor, Lee took his fusion theatre production to Kuala Lumpur, where he encountered failure twice over. Determined to start over again, he spent four years learning about the arts scene in the capital city, understanding the Kuala Lumpur audience and their preferences and building his contacts, especially with sponsors.
“Finally, I felt we were ready to come up to KL again,” recalled Lee, and it paid off. Farewell, My Concubine did so well that the company has staged a show in town every year since then, moving on to a bigger stage each time.
He credits that spirit to keep exploring what had gone wrong, what had been good and what’s next for fulfilling his vision from just a “what if” seed to a growing fusion art form today. The company now employs seven full-time members and has a constant group of part-timers.
Every year, Lee has an open audition where students from the academy side often take part. He will pick those who show talent and who share a desire to explore the performance side of wushu. From there, they join the second section of the company before working their way up to first section.
It all comes down to their determination, said Lee, highlighting that the members receive two to three years’ foundational training and then attend workshops with experts and art practitioners from Malaysia and Singapore.
As a pioneer, Lee is more than aware of the difficulty of doing something completely new. “People thought I was trying to just be cool or play around, but I spent 16 years to prove that I really want to do this.”
Consistent with the title A Decade’s Sword — which is derived from another Chinese saying that represents the spirit of pushing on to achieve skill and success — Lee Wushu Arts Theatre will keep going until its director says the negative voices are completely silenced. Lee reiterated, “Opportunity is for those who are prepared.”
A Decade’s Sword will be showcasing at Pentas 1, Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre, tomorrow (8.30pm) and on Sunday (3pm and 8.30pm). Tickets are priced from RM38 to RM118. For more info, visit www.leewushuarts.com, or purchase tickets at (03) 4047 9000.
This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on November 28, 2014.