Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Beneath The Makeup | Abel Blanco

Here is a short documentary -part of the series Portrait of a Beijinger- produced by Abel Blanco, featuring a self-taught Peking opera performer who specializes as a nandan, or man who performs female roles on stage. 

The nandan, as the cross-gender role in Chinese Opera is one of the most interesting and most challenging. It has a long history and tradition dating to feudal China more than 1,000 years ago when women were not allowed to perform onstage, so male actors had to fill the female roles in Chinese operas. This was popularized with Farewell My Concubine, the 1993 Chinese drama movie.

The roles became well-known in Peking Opera after the emergence of the Famous Four Nandans in the early 20th century. They included Mei Lanfang (1884-1961), whose youngest son Mei Baojiu, also a famous nandan, died recently.

Through song, speech, stylized movement, makeup, and costume, the nandan artists transform themselves into maidens, dowagers, prostitutes, and women warriors. To many afficionados of the art, it is a treat to watch a nandan's performance convey a woman's unspoken feelings simply with their eyes and elegant hand movements. Their falsetto singing voice and acrobatics require years of training. 

The number of nandan artists is dwingling, as women are no longer confined to their homes, and are now even encouraged to play females roles in Peking Opera.

The 200-year-old Beijing Opera is a national treasure. It was a product of the feudal Chinese empire, where women were considered to be inferior, and were banned from doing a great number of activities, from politics to performing on the stage...however this changed in a big way since 1949 when the Communists seized power and gave women equal rights. 

In contrast, the Yue Opera, an ancient local opera popular in south China, features women playing men's roles.

Having completed my 2 year project documenting Hau Dong: The Spirit Mediums of Vietnam which was published in a 170-page book, I'm on the lookout for a long term project to replace it...and the Chinese Opera might be the one. I've already started working at it in Kuala Lumpur and New York City...and hope to travel to Hong Kong to explore its offerings in that respect.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
Some of the photographs I made during a Chinese Opera performance held at the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association Auditorium on New York City's Mott Street can be viewed here.