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Taichi and Integrative Pedagogy: Interview with Master SimPernYiau

Master SimPernYiau is a taichi (太极) master of the Nam WahTaiji Gong/ Wu Tu Nan Taijigong lineage. He is also an experienced actor. He received his education in the performing arts at The Necessary Stage, NUS Theatre Studies Programme and Theatre Training and Research Programme (‘TTRP’).  TTRP was an inter-cultural theatre training school founded by the late great Singapore theatre doyen KuoPao Kun together with T. Sasitharan. He has also taught Taichi to dance students at NAFA and acting students at the Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI). Visit his taichi studio at Wu Tu Nan Taichigong Singapore

* Master Sim: SPY

** Grace Ng: GN

GN: In your opinion, what are the elements of a holistic theatre training system?

SPY:There are 2 elements- the first is an energy-based system of physical training. The second is training the voice with reference to resonant spaces.

GN: Why do you prefer an energy-based system of physical training like taichi say to one with that focusses a lot of the body?

SPY: A system that emphasizes a great deal of physical work is not sustainable with age. As one’s body ages, the physicality of these systems becomes high maintenance, which is why you probably don’t see many older folk in acting class. A better system for older bodies would be one where the exercises promote the release of energy such as a system based on taichi or yoga. An energy-based system of training allows actors to access more energy even as the physical body ages. It also does not require actors to train tense muscular energy to acquire strength.

GN: How can learning taichi benefit actors?

SPY: Taichi is a conditioning and de-conditioning system. Although taichi movements come in formalized shapes such as those you see in the Taichi 24 short form or Taichi 108 long form, these forms are easily accessible and may be modified for performance training.

Taichi also promotes mindful movement. A fundamental principle of taichi is jiejie guan chuan (节节贯穿) moving the chi (气: life energy) while linking up the segments of the body using the mind. Chi follows the mind. By directing chi flow through the parts of the body, not only do we encourage mindful movement, we also connect with these parts of the body at a deep level.

I also like to use the Organs Relaxation exercise from Yang Shen Gong (养身功:exercises for maintaining health) when teaching actors. The Organs Relaxation exercise brings mental focus to the bladder, large intestine, small intestine, heart, lungs, pancreas, liver and gall bladder, stomach, spleen and kidneys. But not discretely. They affect each other. I tell my students that since emotions reside in the organs, they should observe the physical manifestations of emotions in their bodies and especially in their organs. As an additional benefit, the Organs Relaxation exercise may be used to release negative emotions stored in the organs to return the body to a neutral state.

I also have my students do Chi Dong (气动) exercises. Chi Dong means to move the Chi through the energy meridiens of the body through physical vibrations while being mindful. The body has to be aligned with the mind practisingjiejie guan chuan.

GN: You’ve talked about how you use Taichi in physical conditioning for the actor. How can Taichi training benefit the Voice?

SPY: Sound is a vibration. Good vibrations need good resonating spaces. Taichi exercises open up spaces for the voice to resonate by giving the performer access to parts of the body that they may not have actively engaged in sound making. Taichi exercises can open spaces in the body from the superficial to the cellular level.

The human voice is like a wind instrument. The quality of the reed alone does not dictate the quality of the sound. The quality of the sound depends on the body of the instrument. Similarly the quality of the Body determines the richness of the voice.

For example in a play I did recently (‘Ten Thousand Tigers’ by Ho Tzu Nyen (2014)), I had to speak in a throaty voice for a long time. To ensure that my voice lasted for the run of the play, I tapped resonating spaces my body associated with the sound while I made it. This tapping technique is known as ‘pai da’ (拍打

: slapping and hitting) in Taichi Gong.

Pai da is like hitting a drum. When you hit the drum, the sound resonates through the drum skin and body, which includes the empty spaces. The resonance is felt at many levels- the nervous system, muscular skeletal system and deep muscle levels. All of which we infuse with palpable energy – chi.

Taichi also strengthens the voice because we breath from the Dan T’ien (丹田). The Dan T’ien is an energetic concept. It is an area of energy cultivation and consolidation. The most basic Dan Tian is located a few inches below the belly button. Doing Taichi strengthens the Dan T’ien even when no active work is done. Connecting to the Dan Tian rather than lungs makes speaking more powerful yet more effortless.

GN: Why do you prefer to emphasize resonant spaces in voice training?

SPY: A weaker voice doesn’t equate to lowered lung power. Sound is vibrations in space. The greater the energy used, the stronger the vibrations. However if the vibrations are stuck, you cannot get power and expressivity in the voice even if you use a lot of energy. Therefore as much as we emphasize sound production, we need to equally emphasize the freeing of space within the body to allow the sound to find its maximum potential.

GN: What are your thoughts on the perceived dichotomy between Singing and Speech?

SPY: I think that you really can’t divide up Speech & Singing, Dance and Acting. I think that the concept of placing each one in its own little box is actually very modern and of Western origin in the history of human performance. In the Western tradition, you have singing in Opera. In dance productions, the dancers move but do not sing. In stage plays, there is acting but no singing. Except for musical theatre. This division is reflected in costuming as well. Opera costumes are usually elaborate and heavy, hindering movement. Dance costumes are designed to the show the form of the dancers when they move. I find that singing, dancing, acting etc are more unified in Asian traditional art forms.In Chinese Opera, the complete performer has to sing, speak, act and dance. In Noh, the performers chant-intone, act and move. And these are just some examples.

I think the division is also reflected in the way we teach the Performing Arts. Modern Performing Arts Schools are usually split into faculties of Dance, Music, Theatre etc which emphasizes a compartmentalization of expression and experience.

The split between Classical Singing and the rest of the Performing Arts is also emphasized when you place Classical Singing under the umbrella of a Music degree. Grouping Classical Singing with Music conveniently leaves out the fact that we are dealing with the human instrument in singing. The human instrument is not a musical instrument made out of wood or metal, but flesh and blood and thereby possessing all the potential and limitation of the human body.

Another division, I find in Singing and Speaking is the division between intention-based vocalization and musical-based vocalization. In musical-based vocalization, the voice in the context of music takes precedence over the narrative. Singing in Musical Theatre is different from Singing in Classical Voice and Contemporary Commercial Music in this respect.

Let me talk about the dichotomy between non-singing vocalization i.e. what is commonly known as the ‘acting voice’ and singing for musical theatre. Here you have 2 forms of narrative-driven presentations. However the vocal emphasis for each form is slightly different. In Acting, the content of the vocalization is carried through the intention of the character in the context of the narrative. In Musical Theatre vocalization, the content is carried through the form of the melody, intention and ultimately translates itself into the character’s attitude.

There is a similarity here to interpretations of songs from Contemporary Commercial Music . The lyrics of pop songs rarely sound meaningful or moving when read and not sung. Contemporary Commercial Music songs have musicality as their core expression, focusing on an emotion in the moment. The emotion in the moment in turn translates into the singer’s attitude when singing that song and their physical expression of it which may involve elements of dress.

In speech, the focus is on conveying the word. What does this text mean? What is the intention conveyed? What is the subtext? What are the underlying drives and impulses? Communicating the word is the aim of speech in acting. Musicality in speech is in the background with intention in the foreground. Speech with a beautiful sound, great rhythm, wonderful tone and elements that you need in Singing become sound and fury signifying nothing if the sound doesn’t convey the meaning of the text.

Poetry recitation falls somewhere in the middle. You have on the one hand, the expressiveness of the musical elements in Speech and on the other hand, the narrative or emotional contents of the text. The speaker has to have both musicality and convey the text, now in the medium of Speech.

GN: Where does the communication of emotion come in?

SPY: Emotion shouldn’t be communicated. Emotion is carried. Emotion is aroused. In acting, the voice focuses on the intentions, drives and responses of a character’s journey. Emotion is a resultant, not something you work directly on.

Emotion in singing is at the foreground with the story and the narrative in the background.

GN: Where does this leave Musical Theatre?

SPY: Take the theme of ‘desperately searching’. The actor would portray the ‘searching’. The reason for the search, what he encounters during the searching, the successes and failures while searching, all these provides him (or the audience) the ingredients to experience the desperation. But in the centre is the searching. The Musical Theatre actor/singer would portray/sing the desperation in the act of searching, with the help of the song.

GN: If the current thinking in pedagogy is to artificially divide up indivisible parts of the Performing Arts for the purpose of specialization, what in your opinion would be an ideal integrative pedagogical system?

SPY: I think a good system is one that exposes young performing artists to traditional and modern art forms from various cultures, and in various genres, so that they can make up their own minds as to what works for them.

Even famous theatre practitioners were influenced by inter-cultural exposure. Bertolt Brecht was inspired by Chinese Opera legend Mei Lanfang. He saw that in Chinese Opera, the performer did not have to disappear into the character, unlike much “realist” or “naturalistic” Western acting in his time. He saw how singing, movements, gestures, staging and even costumes were employed to create a larger than life effect. From these he developed his ideas of gestural theatre, “alienation” effects and epic theatre. The aim being to create a theatre emotionally resonant enough to MOVE audiences, but yet distanced enough to cause audiences to REFLECT on the social causes of the characters plights.

 

Grotowski was influenced by the spirituality of the Bauls of Bengal and traditional Indian systems of body-mind training, etc. The Bauls of Bengal pass down ancient songs, orally, from generations to generations. The performance of a song was at once a personal spiritual discovery and reaching into the collective roots of a people. Grotowski felt that modern Westerners, or maybe modern humans, have lost their traditions, not only in a cultural sense, but also in a spiritual and even evolutionary sense. And from these ancient Indians he was inspired in part to use the human voice as a means to reconnect and reinstate a primordial state of being. In a way, he was trying to rediscover what has been lost from mainstream European culture but was still very much evident in some Asian and other non-European cultures.The same can be said of Brecht and many so-called modern Euro-American masters.

GN: If the current thinking in pedagogy is to artificially divide up indivisible parts of the Performing Arts for the purpose of specialization, what in your opinion would be an ideal integrative pedagogical system?

SPY: Speaking for myself, I think a good system is one that exposes young performing artists to traditional and modern art forms from all cultures, and in all genres, so that they can make up their own minds as to what works for them.

My advice would be really to get out there, see more aspects of the arts and performing world, see more non-Western and non-mainstream forms, keep an open-mind, learn as much as you can and have fun along the way

Photo by Vinnie Tan