Op-Ed: China Rises in Toronto's The Blue Dragon Special

Posted Jan 15, 2012 by Cate Kustanczy
Canadian theatre veteran Robert LePage examines the idea of "home" and artistic identity, with the backdrop of a China at the crossroads of communism and capitalism.
Eric Labbe
The concept of "home" has been a challenging one for me. I’ve lived all over the world, and tend to feel more comfortable - “at home” - in certain places than I do where I was born.
This theme of “home” and its relationship to creativity is explored in The Blue Dragon, a 2008 work by acclaimed director Robert LePage. His previous works, like The Andersen Project (presented by the Canadian Stage Company in 2010), Eonnagata (seen last winter at The Sony Centre), and The Nightingale (staged in 2009 at the Canadian Opera Company), examined the same theme with varying effects. "Home" as an idea, and what it means personally, intellectually, financially, artistically, are examined with a technological inventiveness that few who experience it will forget. LePage is a master of the searing image, the theatrical Moment, the magical blend of heart and head that asks big questions while revelling in small human dramas. It’s what has made him so in-demand internationally, and lead him to so many prestigious gigs, most notably staging Wagner's epic Ring Cycle at the Metropolitan Opera.
The Blue Dragon, while not new, is nevertheless timely, especially as China continues its economic ascendancy. The play, on now through February 19th at Toronto's Royal Alexandra Theatre, begins where 1985’s The Dragons’ Trilogy leaves off, when title character Pierre La Montagne moves to the East; the Quebec-born artist is now running a gallery that showcases emerging Chinese talent. Pierre (Henri Chassé) gets a visit from his former paramour Claire (Michaud), who is in China to adopt a child. She meets Xiao Ling (Tei Woo Foo), a young artist who is Pierre’s protegee, and, unknown to Claire, his lover. Rather than reducing the drama to a maudlin love triangle, LePage allows China itself becomes a fourth character in the work, portraying it as a fascinating collision of ancient custom and modern sensibility, both limiting and limitless.
This confused modern identity -at once communist and capitalist - is highlighted through creative means: traditional music plays at the cinematic start of the play (with Foo providing exciting dance work), and images of Chairman Mao are displayed along with a Chinese television commercial for KFC. The simple efficiency of Chinese lettering is explained (with Pierre wryly noting his own name translates to “Stone Mountain”) and a translation of French and Chinese dialogue runs across the stage in a kind of comic book-meets-stock-quotes style, serving as a powerful reminder of both artistry and economy. Images of mountains, rivers, and snow become powerful symbols of death, hope, rebirth and regeneration. Just as Marie, Pierre, and Xiao Ling are conflicted, and roll around in various identities, so too does China itself, cradling and rejecting and re-embracing what it is, should be, and might be in future.
Eric Labbe
This inventively cinematic presentation (by Projection Designer David LeClerc and Sound Designer Jean Sébastien Côté) gives The Blue Dragon a movie-like feel, though the play is powerful when it’s reduced to basic. The simple elegance of a blackout, when ugly truths are revealed between Pierre and Claire, provides a welcome respite from the bright neon strobe effects of an earlier thunderstorm, and underlines LePage’s dedication to the humanity of his characters. Sometimes, he seems to be whispering, you have to strip everything away to recognize the true difference between something and nothing.
Such contrast comes into stark relief when we see Claire walking alone through a street after failing to adopt the baby she’d come for. With just a bit of noise and a simple backdrop, Michaud conveys an entire world of heartbreak and disappointment. The balance between technology and heart in The Blue Dragon is keen; its director knows just when to push and pull with each, creating a balance that is every bit as emotional as it is intellectual. This balance is keenly realized in the character of Xiao Ling, who starts as a promising artist, but is forced to abandon her artistic ambitions when she discovers she is pregnant. Working as a copyist in Shenzen, we see her, furiously stabbing away at a canvas as a multitude of blank canvases slowly reveal the repeated image of Vincent Van Gogh’s famously tortured self-portrait.
“I do fifteen a day,” she angrily tells Claire, a year after their introduction.
As loud industrial music plays, a baby’s cry is heard above the din and multiple Van Gogh portraits silently look on in brutal judgement. It’s a powerful statement on the nature of compromise and the harshness of survival. More than that, it hits all the right emotional buttons, creating a scene, and an image, that is searing and deeply memorable.
For all its thoughtfulness, there is also a deeply playful quality to The Blue Dragon, and it shows itself at the show’s close, when three possible scenarios are presented to the audience. Who goes back to Canada? Who stays in China? “Should I stay or should I go” becomes Pierre’s theme, and the work’s mantra; to “stay” in a home that isn’t really his, to “go” to another home that isn’t his either -which scenario serves art -and the soul - best? What does “home” really mean?
They’re questions you come out of The Blue Dragon asking yourself, applying to yourself, chewing over. Like me, you may not find answers -you might only find inspiration amidst rumination, and a certain peace that artists, no matter where they are, have and continue to grapple with this question, in any and every language. Bravo, LePage.