By Christopher Bourne
Just in time for the holiday season, The Red Poppy Ladies, a world-renowned all-female percussion group based in Beijing, have brought the U.S. premiere of their stage show “Mulan the Musical” to New York City. This show is based on the popular tale from ancient China about a young girl who disguised herself as a man to fight in the Emperor’s army, standing in for her aged, infirm father. This story is known to practically all Chinese people, and many Westerners were introduced to it through Disney’s animated version of this tale. “Mulan the Musical” is scheduled for 32 performances from December 18 through January 13 at the Peter J. Sharp Theater at 416 West 42nd Street, between 9th and 10th Avenue. The show had its opening night on December 19.
On December 18, the show held a press conference at the Peter J. Sharp Theater, where Zhou Li, director of the Red Poppy Ladies group, and one of the directors and choreographers of “Mulan the Musical,” informed journalists about the percussion group and the show’s creation.
In his opening remarks, Zhou stated that the Red Poppy Ladies percussion group was formed in China in 2000, beginning with a single woman percussionist. Since then, the company has grown to include 16 percussionists, 12 of whom will perform in “Mulan.” A rotating series of percussionists are included in the company, who are replaced every few years. The Red Poppy Ladies perform all over the world, mainly in China, other parts of Asia, and Europe. They normally travel to many different venues to perform their work. However, for their performances of “Mulan” in the U.S., they have settled down in a single theater to perform their show multiple times. Zhou believes this will be good for the show, as it will allow many more people the opportunity to see their work. “Mulan” is also designed differently than the Red Poppy Ladies’ other shows, which are usually performances of a single musical piece. This time, they have created 13 musical pieces, which form their current show.
Following Zhou’s remarks, the Red Poppy Ladies performed excerpts from three of the show’s pieces. The first, “At School,” includes six of the performers seated at three desks, where they drum on the tables with their hands and with drumsticks, while chanting the words to a Chinese poem. This is a very playful and energetic piece, invoking a childlike sense of mischief and disruptive defiance. The second, “Out for a Battle,” features the full company, led by Du Qianqian, the actress who plays Mulan, dressed in warrior costumes, and drumming with rapid-fire precision. The percussive rhythms of this piece are appropriately martial, with the performers chanting what seem to be war cries. The third piece, “A Song for Mulan,” which closes the show, features the drummers accompanied by operatic background music and video projection behind them with images of the Great Wall of China, dragon sculptures, and raging fires.
Afterwards, the Red Poppy Ladies posed for photos for the press, some of them with the fou drum, a large, rectangular, elaborately designed wooden drum that was prominently featured at the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. The Red Poppy Ladies themselves performed at that Olympics’ closing ceremony.
After the press conference, I briefly interviewed Zhou Li, who offered more details on the show’s conception and creation, as well as the company itself. When I asked about the meaning of the company’s name, Zhou responded that they came up with the name “Red Poppy” right at the beginning of their formation. “A poppy is beautiful and powerful,” he said, and he thought that Red Poppy was a striking, nice-sounding name.
“Mulan the Musical” has no dialog or singing; the only vocalizing is the sort of chanting featured in the excerpts performed at the press conference. According to Zhou, they chose to tell the story of Mulan for several reasons. “In Mulan, the story and personality of this girl is similar with our people [i.e. the Red Poppy Ladies], they’re powerful and passionate.” Also, the story of Mulan is familiar enough, to both Chinese and Westerners, that it is accessible and understandable to many audiences. Without dialogue, with performers who don’t speak English and who have to convey a narrative through percussion and choreographed movement, Zhou thought it was best to have a simple, well-known story to use as the show’s structure.
Zhou also believes that the relatively small, 128-seat Peter J. Sharp Theater is ideal for this show; since the Red Poppy Ladies consist of only 16 performers, a very large concert hall wouldn’t be appropriate for their performances. A more intimate space where the audience is closer to the performers, Zhou feels, is better for a good show.
Finally, Zhou talked a little about the drums used for the show, especially the large fou drum. Zhou said they researched and designed the drums that were used for the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. He related a curious fact about this ancient drum: the original was made out of copper, and it actually doubled as an appliance. “They put ice with wine inside. It’s an ancient refrigerator!” Zhou said. “Two thousand years ago, they know that wine with ice is nice!” Zhou said, laughing.
Video from the press conference:
For more information on “Mulan the Musical”, please visit http://www.mulanthemusical.com
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