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The "Monkey" and the Chinese Circus Inside the acrobatics of "Monkey: Journey to the West"

By DIEP TRAN

Who knew how difficult it was to find performers who can spin plates? That's what director Chen Shi-Zheng discovered when he traveled to China to find 23 acrobats adept at traditional Chinese circus techniques. It took him half a year to track them down.

"A lot of people have abandoned training in these classic acts," explains the New York-based director. That's why he was so intent on incorporating the art form into Monkey: Journey to the West, the opening production for the 2013 Lincoln Center Festival.

"I wanted to give a spotlight on this dying tradition," Chen says. "I want the people who are practicing, especially young people, to value what they do. In China, it's very unappreciated."

Monkey, making its New York debut at the Lincoln Center Festival through July 28th, is a music-theatre piece based on a four-volume novel from 1592 called Journey to the West. The most well-known character is the Monkey King, a magical monkey seeking immortality. He is charged with accompanying and protecting Tripitaka, a Buddhist monk, en route to India on a quest for Buddhist scriptures. He travels with an otherworldly band of bodyguards including a humanoid pig named Pigsy, a celestial being called Sandy, and a white horse that used to be a dragon.

In distilling this mammoth text to 110 minutes, Chen took a primarily visual approach, selecting chapters that were both well-known and looked the most spectacular on stage. The tableaux include a ghoulish skeleton demon in hell and a dragon king who lives underwater in a crystal palace. 

"The volcano, the sea, the mountain...they changed visually, which was very exciting," he says. "Also, those scenes made it possible for me to incorporate circus elements and martial arts."

The focus in Chinese circus is on the performer's bodies: They balance on each other's heads, spin on aerial silks, and toss Chinese yo-yos. "I wanted to show people how they train, their incredible bodies and what they can do with their bodies. No one can do that in the West," Chen says.

Because of this emphasis, Monkey contains very little dialogue. The performers primarily convey their moods through gestures and songs. It's almost like putting a modern twist on Chinese opera.

Chen collaborated on the show with Damon Albarn, for the alternatively operatic and electronic score, and Jamie Hewlett, for the anime-influenced design and animated sequences. (Albarn and Hewlett are also famous for creating the virtual rock band Gorillaz.)

"When there are things that you cannot do onstage, you do it in animation," Chen says. "When the animation ends, you still get a sense of the movement and the speed [on stage]."

For Chen, who first read the novel when he was eight, the appeal of this epic tale is simple: Its hero is an underdog, or rather, an under-monkey.

"For a little monkey to conquer every obstacle and establish himself as a respectable hero, that's very compelling," he explains. "Plus, the companions each reflect a human weakness and flaw. It's just like a family."

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Diep Tran is a writer and editor based in New York City
Photo by Stephanie Berger