How to understand Zuni (II) Technology How to understand Zuni (II) Technology How to understand Zuni (II) Technology
How to understand Zuni (II) Technology
Dr. Rossella Ferrari
Professor of Chinesea Studies (Sinologie), University of Vienna, Austria
Regional Managing Editor (China), The Theatre Times
◤Note: This article, written by Dr. Ferrari, was commissioned by Zuni. We would like to share it in the Zuni 40 UNCOMING series to review and reflect on what Zuni has been doing in four parts: tradition, technology, exchange and education. This is part II.
Photography: Cheung Chi Wai, Joe Lau, Keith Sin and Vic Shing
What is technology? How does Zuni reinvent tradition and theatre through technology? If we define technology as the application of new techniques to improve certain conditions or find a solution to certain problems, then Zuni’s reinvention of tradition through technology seeks new solutions for the development and sustainability of heritage performing arts in contemporary times, and new ways of connecting ancient traditions with the current cultural and social environment. The goal of reinventing tradition through technology is to improve the conditions of production and reception of traditional arts in the contemporary world, and to enhance their communicative potential and relevance to contemporary audiences.
Central to the project of “revitalizing tradition” is the advancement, or twenty-first century “updating and upgrading”, of indigenous theatres through interaction with new techniques and technologies. The pursuit of this kind of “Xiqu 2.0” (or “Chinese Opera 2.0”) plays a significant role in the process of “recreating theatre though media and technology” that Zuni has set as one of its main creative directions.
Experimental operatic pieces by Zuni co-artistic director Mathias Woo reconstruct traditional Chinese architecture through multimedia and mix the artistic inheritance of Kun Opera – the most ancient type of Chinese opera that is still practiced today – with contemporary music. One example is The Forbidden City, starring popular Hong Kong singer Anthony Wong Yiu-ming. Woo has connected Chinese history to the contemporary social and political experiences of China and Hong Kong in such works as One Hundred Years of Chinese Architecture and 1587: A Year of No Significance. As part of Zuni’s History Theatre series, this production emphasises the relevance of the past – hence, of tradition – for our times. It shows how some apparently insignificant events occurred in the year 1587, which historians of China wrote off an uneventful and rather irrelevant year, turned out to be of great importance for the future of the country to the extent that their repercussions are still felt to this day.
The Forbidden City (2009, Hong Kong Cultural Centre)
One Hundred Years of Chinese Architecture (2015, Hong Kong Cultural Centre)
1587: A Year of No Significance (2012, Hong Kong Cultural Centre)
Woo’s Multimedia Architecture Music Theatre series has explored the contemporary legacy of modernism with high-tech productions about modern architects such as Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, and multimedia crossovers on the inheritance of the Bauhaus.
Looking for Mies – God is in the Details (2011, Hong Kong Cultural Centre)
Another strand of Zuni innovation revolves around music and sound experimentation. Past productions have explored the musical traditions of China and Europe – often hybridised or linked to religious themes. In the digital opera Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, digital imaging technology, dance, and puppetry enhance the story of the Italian Jesuit priest who travelled to China in the late 16th century, during the Ming Dynasty. The Hua-Yen Sutra series, featuring Buddhist chanting and actual Buddhist monks on the stage, is perhaps the most representative example of the creative merging of spirituality, ritualism, and technology in Zuni’s theatre. More recent works such as Rotten Big Ass and Blind Musician Dou Wun revisit the lost sounds of Naamyam, a music genre that was once popular in the brothels of Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and Macau. The blind singer Dou Wun, a master of Naamyam, is brought back to life through virtual technology. His image is reconstructed on the stage during the performance on the basis of a few extant photographs taken in his lifetime.
A Digital Opera in 7 Acts – Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (2010, St. Ignatius Chapel, Kowloon)
Hua-Yen Sūtra 4.0 Purification Practices (2016, Hong Kong Cultural Centre)
Rotten Big Ass (2019, Hong Kong Cultural Centre)
The Freespace Tech Lab – a three-year project started in 2017 and renamed as Z Innovation Lab in 2018 – exemplifies the application of multimedia technology to create an immersive stage experience. Seated inside a black-box space with mirror walls all around, audiences are surrounded by continuous sound, light, and kinetic installations and taken on “a rollercoaster ride for the senses”, as Zuni describes the experience. Likewise, the use of 3D sound, motion capture, virtual avatars, and telematic performance in the Z Innovation Lab experimental series illustrates the central theme of Zuni’s 2018-19 season: “Theatre is Technology”.
The Z Innovation Lab 2019 has received the Red Dot Award: Brand & Communication Design 2020. The is a photo from Bach is Heart Sutra (2020, Hong Kong Cultural Centre)
Several productions link tradition and technology to the work of memory – not only historical memory but also the collective memory of the everyday life of individuals and communities in urban environments, and particularly in the city of Hong Kong. Woo’s The Architecture of the City, inspired by the writings of Italian architect Aldo Rossi, shows that local memory is built through our relationship to specific places and objects, such as the bamboo scaffolding that feature prominently in the stage design of this piece and are so characteristic of Hong Kong’s cityscape. Yung’s installation “Gateway – Tian Tian Xiang Shang”, exhibited on the National Mall in Washington DC in 2014, is another example of modernization and artistic repurposing of “traditional technology” – in this case, the local heritage of the giant bamboo banners known as “flower plaques”.
The Architecture of The City has received DFA Design for Asia Awards 2018 – Silver Award and Silver A' Design Award in Performing Arts, Style and Scenery Design Category in 2019 (2017, Hong Kong Cultural Centre)
Gateway – Tian Tian Xiang Shang (2014, Smithsonian Folklife Festival at National Mall in Washington, DC)