Two years ago, when I was performing The Conjuror at Soulpepper, I was accused of just that: appropriating culture.
The complaint? My performance of the Chinese Linking Rings—performed in Chinese gown and mask—was offensive. I was appropriating culture.
I have performed the Linking Rings for decades, and was inspired by the great Canadian magician Dai Vernon—perhaps the most influential magician of all time—and his approach to the piece. Vernon had performed the piece in Chinese gown and mask (made by his wife, Jeanne Verner) in the 1930s. The mask I used was based on historical masks worn by Chinese performers dating back centuries.
Well, the letters certainly had me pause to reflect, long and hard, on the piece and how times have changed—and for the better.
I took another look at the lineage of the piece, its ancient origins*, and how most who perform it throughout the world today, rely on Vernon’s technique. One thing is for certain: whatever technique was traditional with Chinese magicians, it was most likely wiped out during the Cultural Revolution. (Chinese magic scholars are now actively trying to reconstruct much of their magic heritage from the memory of elder practitioners while they are still with us. Once they are gone, so is, to a large extent, their technique.)
So, for Hocus Pocus, I wanted to revisit the Vernon choreography, but how? Vernon’s routine is balletic, full of rhythm and grace and hauntingly beautiful. It reminds me of, well, the music of Bill Evans—specifically his recording of “Quiet Now” and “I Loves You, Porgy.” Smokey, blue and cool.
I then thought, if Twyla Tharp and Mark Morris can choreography work to contemporary pieces, why can’t I? The contemporary in this instance, however, is by my musical collaborator, John Lang, and his take—at my request—on the music of Bill Evans.
Now that’s cool.
* Thank you to Max Maven for providing additional insight and information for this blog post.