So, while talking with friends about the concert that I’ve been working on with Dynasty Electric, and how I’ve come to think of it as a way to bring orchestral music into contact with a younger audience, someone brought up the subject of ballet, and what an effort to bring classical ballet to a younger and larger audience might look like, we struck upon the idea of combining classical ballet and wuxia. The wuxia genre finds its most well-known expression in film, represented by the venerable category of the “martial arts film” or more specifically in Chinese culture, the “kung fu film.” Spanning generations, from the original Hong Kong low-budget Shaw Bros. films of the 60’s and 70’s, which have been lovingly referenced more recently by such directors as Quentin Tarantino (Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2) and the Wachowskis (The Matrix Trilogy), through the Ang Lee – directed serious arthouse film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” at the beginning of the 21st century, Wuxia films represent a substantial percentage of the output of China’s film industry, to this day. Kung Fu films have long been a guilty pleasure of mine, so the idea of writing a ballet with such a story line resonated with me greatly. The result, after a few months of work, is “A Faraway Place”.
The ballet is presented in two acts, with an intermission. Musically, the ballet is divided into 8 sections, with sections 1 .. 4 below making up act 1, and sections 5 .. 8 comprising act 2. At present each of the 8 sections below should be considered as a “concept piece” … until choreography and lots of other things happen, the actual score for the ballet cannot be fully written. These parts then, were the framework in which I could flesh out the narrative story line of the ballet, introduce and work on the various leitmotifs that I would be using throughout the ballet, and also experiment with scoring and playing some of the traditional Chinese instruments which make up a large part of the unique sound of the score. The overall orchestra composition is as follows:
Flute 1 (doubling Piccolo) & 2
Oboe & English Horn
Clarinet 1 & 2
Bassoon 1 & 2
French Horns 1 & 2
Trumpet 1 & 2
Trombone 1 & 2
Violin 1 & 2
Viola 1 & 2
Cello 1 & 2
Various Percussion (2 players)
Traditional Chinese Instruments:
The overall story of the ballet is summarized below, divided into the 8 sections:
We open on a tiny village in the countryside of Ancient Imperial China, at dawn. The mountains in the distance are still shrouded in mist. As the music begins to coalesce into a tune (the “Village Theme”), villagers begin to appear, shuffling off the night’s sleep, and slowly beginning the day’s tasks. Not much happens in the village, and there is a sense of rote, of every day being much the same.
One of the villagers, a young man, still handsome, his back not yet bent by years of toil, seems slightly out of place … just slightly too much vitality and youthful enthusiasm for this place. He dreams of better things. He is the “Hero” of our story.
2. Arrival of the Emperor
Suddenly, an envoy of the Chinese Emperor arrives in the village, setting everyone astir with curiosity. He grandly announces that the Emperor’s convoy will be shortly passing through the village, en route to the Empire’s frontier, and will make camp for several days to rest the men and horses. As a part of the village’s obligation to the Emperor, they must house and feed the large entourage, and provide whatever provisions are requested.
While initially excited about the prospect of the Emperor being in their midst, they quickly realize that much needs to be done to prepare the village for the Emperor’s arrival – suddenly the ramshackle buildings and muddy streets look to the villagers like an embarrassment. In a flurry of mostly uncoordinated activity, the villagers race around trying to make things presentable – cleaning, sweeping, hanging banners and lanterns and decorations to hide the worn and aging woodwork.
Before they are finished, a cry goes up from a village sentry in the hills: the convoy is nearly at the village gates! They have arrived early! In a final desperate burst of activity, the villagers finish just as the Emperor arrives.
Note: The musical theme in this section (the “Emperor’s Theme”) was inspired by the actual transcription of a 6,000 year old musical tablet discovered recently at an archeological dig in China. Found in the tomb of an unknown ancient lord, the music written on the tablet is the oldest known piece of notated human music.
3. The Emperor’s Banquet
The villagers gather in the centre of town, abuzz with excitement as, with a fanfare, the Emperor and his entourage enter the village. Resplendent, the Emperor leads the procession through the village square (to a restatement and fugue on the “Emperor’s Theme”), and to large tables set for a banquet. As the entourage is seated, the Emperor raises his hands and directs everyone’s gaze across the stage, where his daughter appears.
She is a pale beauty, dressed in a traditional costume whose very long sleeves trail on the floor, and are used to create intricate patterns in the air during her dance. She dances to the “Princess’ Theme”, a delicate waltz performed on the harp. Amongst the villagers, the Hero is smitten by the sight of the lovely princess.
When her dance finishes, the villagers hurry about, bringing food and drink, and the banquet begins in earnest (accompanied by a fugue on the “Village Theme”). The princess, with a quiet word in her father’s ear, excuses herself and leaves the stage amidst the hustle and bustle. The Hero, seeing this, also exits, unnoticed in all the activity.
4. The Young Lovers
Away from the festivities, the Princess walks through the fields surrounding the village, enjoying the scenery and quiet. The Hero appears, surprising the Princess, but his handsome form and kind demeanour put her at ease and they walk together. The Hero offers his hand and they dance a sweet and innocent pas de deux, during which they fall in love (as only happens in the ballet). Toward the end of the dance, fireworks from the Emperor’s banquet light the sky, mirroring their feelings of joy.
As their dance ends, they are suddenly intruded upon by the Emperor, who is furious at the insolence of the young man. The punishment for touching the royal personage of the Emperor’s daughter is instant execution, and his bodyguards close in on the young Hero to carry out his orders. The princess, however, pleads for her newfound love’s life, and the Emperor relents in the face of her tears, and banishes the boy to a monastery in the mountains, for the remainder of his life. Ashamed and overcome, our hero leaves. The first act ends on this unfortunate note.
After the intermission, the curtain opens on a scene set in the mountains, with a large monastery perched high on a crag. The second half makes use of two very large Tibetan instruments, which are too big to be placed into the orchestra pit, so they are displayed on stage as part of the set decoration, and will be played by musicians in costume as monks of the monastery. One is a large temple bell, and the other is an approximately 3m long Dungchen horn similar to the one to the left, which will be pointed directly out toward the audience for maximum effect.
As the scene begins, our Hero is approaching the monastery, shivering with cold. He is greeted by robed monks, and as they surround him, momentarily hiding him from view, he is transformed, emerging in his own set of robes, and begins his initiation into the monastic order. This piece of music, based on low drones on organ, tuba and bassoon, with musical motive force supplied by Pipa and duelling Violins and Chinese “Erhu” stringed instruments, and punctuated by very loud blasts from the Dungchen horn, represents the “training montage” (a long-time staple of the “kung fu” movie genre), wherein the Hero’s long and very arduous training in the style of Kung Fu taught by the monks, is compressed into a flowing few minutes of training, fighting and finally mastery of the art, as the piece reaches its thunderous finale.
6. The Mongol Army
The syncopated 3-over-2 drum rhythm that finished the previous piece carries through to the beginning of this one, as the scene on stage moves the audience to a high mountain pass above the monastery, where we discover the Mongol Army, massing for an invasion of China. The unusual use of sleigh bells as percussion in this piece mirrors the Mongol custom of placing bells on the tackle of their war horses, and whips and other percussive elements reinforce the Mongol use of horses in battle. The Mongol army’s dance is characterized by aggressive, massed synchronized blocky movements, and sudden pauses as they try unsuccessfully to remain stealthy, despite their great numbers.
This piece introduces the Gyaling, a type of enclosed double-reed instrument most similar to the European shawm, which has a shrill and warbling tone. This instrument will represent the Mongol army musically in the next section. Toward the end of this section, unseen by the Mongols, a monk from the monastery spies the army from a high peak, and disappears to raise the alarm.
7. The Battle is Joined
Once again, the 3-over-2 percussion, more insistent this time, bridges the gap between pieces. In the battle which is about to take place, the Monks of the Monastery are represented musically by blasts on the Dungchen horn, and the Mongol army by the shrill Gyaling. As the climactic centre of the entire ballet, this piece forms an extended battle sequence, fully utilizing the fusion of classical ballet choreography and cinematic fight choreography including wire work, warriors fighting in the air and balanced high on mountain peaks, etc.
In the initial part of the piece, the Mongols appear to be getting the upper hand, despite the Monks’ heroic efforts to keep keep them at bay. At approximately 2:06, there is a sudden change in the music, as our Hero finds himself face-to-face with the leader of the Mongol Army, and must fight him mano-a-mano, using all the skill he has learned at the monastery. They circle, each one attacks and parries, the fight getting more intense until in a final stroke, the Hero kills the Mongol leader, sending the mongol army into disarray.
At just that moment, the “Emperor’s Theme” appears musically layered onto the battle theme, as the Emperor’s army arrives (having been alerted to the imminent danger by a dispatched monk), and together the monks and the Emperor’s army totally rout the Mongol Army, sending them back through the mountain passes in a hasty retreat. The piece ends on a triumphant crescendo Picardy Third.
With the Mongol threat vanquished, the Emperor calls for the Monks of the monastery to be brought before him, so he can thank them for saving China. He bows low to each of them in turn, a sign of the greatest respect possible from an Emperor. With a shock of recollection, he recognizes the very same boy he once banished from his village. After a pause to consider the enormity of his mistake, he gestures to his daughter, who appears and dances a short recapitulation of the “Princess’ Theme”, only this time transposed to 4/4 time, so it feels somewhat unsure of itself, hesitant initially. When she also recognizes the Hero amongst the monks, the dance becomes more sure of itself, and insistent. At the end, she reaches out her hand to her father, and the Emperor symbolically allows the two lovers to finally be together and marry, by placing their hands together himself.
The hero and the princess, ecstatic, dance their joy in a beautiful finale, that includes graceful wire-assisted throws and leaps and acrobatics that match the joyous, uplifting music that closes the ballet. Truly, a happy ending!
I’ve gone about as far as I can with this at present, and now I need to drum up some interest with a ballet company or school, or a choreographer who is willing to work with me on finalizing the choreography (which is intended to use a ground-breaking fusion of classical ballet choreography and Hong Kong cinematic fight choreography (as seen in Kill Bill, the Matrix and other films). If you are such a ballet company, school, or choreographer, please use the Contact link at the top of the page, to contact me and let’s get this thing going!