The Dome of Shang

The Shang dynasty existed from 1600 B.C. to 1046 B.C. It was the first historic dynasty of China and its dominion covered the north eastern part of the country. An old legend tells of the ‘Theatre of Shang’, a travelling show or revue which incorporated music, dance, song, puppetry and storytelling. This ancient cabaret took place in tents of all shapes and sizes, in large marquees made of cloth and in yurts of Mongolian origin. The Shang theatres were popular with the masses, although they included performances, troubadours, players, musicians, stories, and theatrical skills from far-flung cultural backgrounds which would have been totally unknown to local people at the time. The theatre functioned socially both as entertainment and education.

In the same area of north eastern China, but two and a half thousand years later, there arose the artistic phenomenon known as Peking Opera, quite fantastic in musical and theatrical content. It contained pantomime ,dance, acrobatics and a very stylised form of singing. The vocal line was accompanied by the erhu (violin) and intensely dynamic percussion with a cacophony of gongs and a clattering of cymbals.

More striking than all these components however were the ‘Jing Ju’or painted faces worn by some of the characters. These very striking masks enabled the players to exaggerate their facial expressions so that the emotional impact of the narrative could be transmitted right to the back row of a crowded venue. The colours of the masks had specific relation to the qualities of the character being portrayed and the public would be able to ‘read ’ these signs. A red painted face indicated loyalty,but a white face would mean a treacherous nature, and so on.

The Fish Memory Orchestra decided to combine these two artistic traditions from the north east of China in their performance The Dome of Shang. They were fortunate enough to have been given the use of a beautiful canvas geodesic dome. This kind of structure is a 20th century equivalent of a yurt, nomadic tent or mobile-house . As a concept, the geodesic dome appeared as an invention by the multi-talented genius Buckminster Fuller .Early prototypes were seen in the 1940s. The term geodesic comes from the measuring of a distance across the curve of the earth by using a sequence of short straight lines. Bucky Fuller applied this to the building of a round structure, using short slats of metal to create the curve of the dome. The whole is easily deconstructed into small portable pieces, yet when built up it makes a structure quite as strong as many a permanent building. The dome for the performance proved to be surprisingly non-claustrophobic,it was in fact light and airy, yet also intimate for a small audience, with excellent acoustic properties.

This Forgotten Fishy ‘Theatre of Shang’ drew from a very wide musical spectrum……old Chinese, Tibetan and Japanese melodies, some avant-garde experiments with water organ and piano harp, interspersed with some scottish/arabic tunes, some klezmer and even a cover of Prokofiev’s ‘Girls Dancing with Lilies’.

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