• Sarah Kwok

Crossing Mountains & Seas - July 20

Orchid Ensemble

When was the last time you saw a show with contemporary music fusing Chinese traditions and improvisation, aerial dancers, media projections, and magical worlds interspersed with a video game format? I'm guessing never, and I'm also guessing that you're now quite intrigued about Crossing Mountains & Seas. Below, I spoke with Lan Tung, Artistic Director of the Orchid Ensemble (as well as producer, music director, erhu player, story-editor, and the list goes on...) about this show and its fascinating interdisciplinary components.

So, tell me about the show

Crossing Mountains & Seas is an inter-disciplinary production that fuses contemporary and aerial dance, original music with Chinese traditions, and interactive multimedia projection. The performance is a journey through an imaged video game that crosses over modern day Canada and a magical world of pre-historic Asia, as described in the ancient book Shan Hai Jing or the Classic of Mountains & Seas. 

Crossing Mountains & Seas celebrates how the various creatures in Shan Hai Jing had lived in harmony with each other, which is a metaphor of an ideal multi-cultural society that we are seeking today. Within an imaged role-playing video game, players can interact and collaborate, no matter what their nationality, ethnicity, physical appearance, age, and gender would be. The production also showcases the creative aspects of gaming and the infinite possibilities of video technology.

The game acts as a portal for our characters to travel between the ancient and modern worlds, the east and the west, the sea and the sky, and the reality and our imagination. Vertical dancers (members of Aeriosa Dance) are suspended in the air to break the boundary of performance space on a multi-dimensional stage. Against dramatic media projection with the latest video technology, brush-painting characters are animated in ever-changing scenes. Live music is scored for the combination of Chinese and western instruments for this adventurous journey.

What was the inspiration for the show?

The show is inspired by the ancient book Shan Hai Jing. Written more than 2000 years ago, it is an important source of ancient knowledge in geography, herbal medicine, mythology, shamanism, and history. This book provides the context for a fantasy world where many hybrid creatures of gods, animals, and humans have lived together. From there, we can unleash our imagination to create our own hybrid characters.

Some of the characters mentioned in the book are deeply embedded in Asian culture. They are in famous legends being told for thousands of years. Throughout time, the stories become more and more elaborate and the shapes of the characters change. Other folktales become incorporated. In this book, you can read about them in their very early version. I am interested in history, and many of my music compositions are inspired by Chinese traditions, such as folk songs, literature, brush painting, and legends. This book naturally is a place for me to look for ideas.

You're working with a lot of different artists in different mediums - what has the collaboration process been like?

The four co-creators, Julia Taffe, Sammy Chien, Chengxin Wei and I, are equal collaborators in the project. I initiated the project and proposed the two main ideas to develop the project from: 1) drawing inspiration from the ancient book Shan Hai Jing, 2) taking the audiences on a journey to crossover between modern day Canada and this fantasy world in the context of video game playing. From there, the four of us developed the storyline, created the characters, and designed the scenes together.

Why did you choose to collaborate with these particular artists and dancers?

Ever since I saw Aeriosa's dancers performing over the tall walls at the Vancouver Public Library during the Vancouver Winter Olympics, I have been wanting to work with them. Vertical dance's graceful movements just seem to work so well with the sounds of the Chinese instruments. Then we did work together - Orchid Ensemble was part of Aeriosa's project at the Stanley Park for three summers in a row before we started on this project. That gave me a good point to begin to understand how vertical dancers move and the opportunities to experiment with different musical ideas with them. 

I worked with the other choreographer, Chengxin Wei, in Triaspora 2007. That was the Orchid Ensemble's first full length dance production. We were invited to present this piece at the BC Scene at the National Arts Centre in 2009. After that Chengxin went to the US for studies and teaching. He finally returned to Vancouver, so it is about time for us to work together again.

This is the first time I officially work with Sammy. We are both from Taiwan and have many mutual friends. He came to improvise with me as a dancer at the 2016 Sound of Dragon Music Festival, which I acted as the artistic director and producer. We have been looking for an opportunity to collaborate since then.

Crossing Mountains & Seas

So the audience members/characters will be going on a journey throughout the show - is this a journey of self discovery, or is there perhaps a specific destination that they're trying to reach?

It is a journey for the two characters of distinct cultural heritages to understand and build trust in each other, first in the game world, then in reality. The process is more important than the destination. 

I very much agree with that, but the destination is still important, especially when that destination is the Vancouver Playhouse on July 20 to see Crossing Mountains & Seas with the Orchid Ensemble, Aeriosa Dance Society, and Chimerik.

More information: https://www.orchidensemble.com/crossing-mountains-seas/

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