As the drummers strike in unison and dancers display their martial arts-like moves, a tremendous momentum forms on stage and hurtles toward the audience with full force.
This harmonious union of drumming and martial-arts is the work of Huang Zhiqun, musical director for the performance group U-Theatre. While each show is a rich visual and aural experience, Huang hopes audience can feel the troupe’s spiritual strength and experience inner peace.
Growing up in Malaysia during the worldwide Bruce Lee craze, Huang would imitate the combat moves he saw in martial-arts- movies. But it wasn’t until he joined a local branch of the Jing Wu Athletic Association that he began training seriously. In addition to martial arts, the association also required its students to learn Guangdong-style lion dance drumming. He did not expect that these two skills would remain significant throughout his performing arts career.
Huang started with the Taipei Folk Dance Theatre and Cloud Gate Dance Theater, where he learned a third skill – dance. Even though Huang went through musical and body development training with the Jing Wu Athletic Association, he initially had trouble attuning to the rhythm and movements of Cloud Gate’s modern dance and ballet. After practicing for a year, Huang overcame his difficulties. Around this time, Liu Ruo-yu, U-Theatre’s founder, recruited him.
“She wanted to create a performance based on ancient elements, even studying traditional-folk-arts such as stilt walking and drum dancing. She then turned them into theatrical performances,” he says. “Through this process, she realized that drums were a very important instrument in traditional Chinese culture. It played a part in weddings, funerals, and other ceremonies. Liu wanted all her performers to learn drumming – and that’s how she found me.”
With Huang’s help, U-Theatre’s members not only became well-versed in drumming, but they also developed its first performance that prominently featured drums.
Huang believes drums can directly reach people’s hearts. So U-Theatre hopes to give the audience spiritual energy through each beat. However, they need to elevate the performance to a spiritual level to truly impact the audience and leave deep impression. Thus, the performers need to do more than striking a drum during their everyday training. Under Huang’s lead, U-Theatre developed a basic three-pronged regimen of meditation, martial arts, and drumming.
Having once meditated under a Bodhi tree in India for half a year, Huang believes the most important is meditation since one must calm one’s heart in order to see their true self. Practicing martial arts also supplements the notion, as Huang says that the essence of Wushu is not to defeat the external enemy, but the enemy within.
“Wushu not only entails training the body, it’s also about training one’s spirit,” he says.
Through meditation and Wushu, the performers learn to completely control their body at all times. In this case, they can put on the best show possible for U-Theatre. New members usually train from one to three years before they start getting into the swing of things. And this includes those who came from a martial arts background. Even though many martial arts performances use drums to intensify the atmosphere, the movements don’t often match the beat. Things become even tougher when they add dance into the mix.
“Martial arts practitioners often don’t have a concept of rhythm, because it isn’t emphasized in their training,” Huang says. “Dance and Wushu are two different ways of using one’s body.”
Martial arts elements are outstanding in U-Theatre’s works, such as the use of Taiji in “Beyond Time.” Huang believes that martial arts is more than just a source of inspiration – it’s like a form of music. From the beginning to completion of each movement to the performer’s sense of speed, Wushu can be integrated seamlessly with drumming, further embodying U-Theatre’s unwavering belief of treating spirituality and the arts as one.