What This Graham Star Learned from Training in Martial Arts for a New Akram Khan-Choreographed Show
PeiJu Chien-Pott rehearsing in Beijing for the role of Xiao Lian in Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise. Photo by An Rong Xu
When dancers kick their legs, they typically try to avoid hitting their colleagues. But the performers in the upcoming show Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise, choreographed by Akram Khan, have had to train to do just the opposite.
"It's not a grand battement. You're kicking someone's face. It has to have intention," says Martha Graham Dance Company star PeiJu Chien-Pott, who plays the role of Xiao Lian, a mother fighting to protect her family.
At the same time, the trick of performing martial arts onstage is, of course, to not actually hurt the other person. To pull this off convincingly, the six lead performersrecently spent two weeks in Beijing training with a kung fu master. Chien-Pott shared with Dance Magazine what she got took away from the experience.
PeiJu Chien-Pott rehearsing in Beijing, with director Chen Shi-Zheng and martial arts assistant, Child G, in the background.
An Rong Xu
Becoming One with a Knife
The type of martial arts she studied is called bagua, which was developed in the mountains of China.
"Each of the main characters has a different superpower, different weapons that he or she's good at," says Chien-Pott. "My weapon is a long, metal knife. Ideally, I'll make it look like part of my limb."
The show's director Chen Shi-Zheng and master martial arts choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping sent her a video from 1983 of a woman moving so fluidly that the knife looks like it weighs no more than a feather. "That's my reference—that's my goal."
It turns out that kung fu is ultimately less physical than Chien-Pott assumed.
"It's about speed and control and eye contact," she says. "The master told me that eye contact takes 60 percent of the effort, the body movement takes 40 percent. It's about pulling the audience in with intention and strong focus."
Chien-Pott realized it's also about taking pauses between movements to breathe and let the audience digest what just happened. "Learning this technique taught me to be patient; naturally, I always want to keep moving. But then it just looks like messy street fighting."
The training didn't come easily: Over the course of two weeks in Beijing, Chien-Pott sprained both an inner thigh muscle and an ankle.
The other unexpected difficulty? Getting her knife back home. "Well before even entering the airport I was called and asked, what is that for?" (She ended up having to wrap it with towels and ship it back to New Jersey).
The bulk of rehearsals for the production don't start until May (for a July premiere), so in the meantime, Chien-Pott is practicing sequences on her own to increase her arm and wrist strength, and to maintain the martial arts movements in her muscle memory.
But she's not done learning new skills. Next up? Aerial silks.
The cast of Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise in rehearsal. Photo by Stephanie Berger, Courtesy The Shed
Akram Khan loves to dive into genres he is unfamiliar with. While his own movement vocabulary is a hybrid of kathak and contemporary dance, he has choreographed a new Giselle for English National Ballet, collaborated with flamenco artist Israel Galván and made a dance theater duet with film star Juliette Binoche. Now, in between touring Xenos, his final full-length solo, and several other projects, he's found time to tackle kung fu. Khan is part of the collaborative team behind Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise, a blockbuster musical based on themes of migration and the fight for survival, running June 22–July 27. Directed by Chen Shi-Zheng and featuring a score that remixes songs by Sia, it's part of the inaugural season of The Shed, a new venue in New York City.