Poetry in Motion — Performers with Disabilities

Poetry in Motion: Actors on stage white masks and long flowing costumes

China’s first special art performance to combine music, dance, and poetry by people with disabilities sowed seeds of appreciation in viewers.

Whether these seeds continue to germinate with similar performances in the future, the experience pulled on the audience’s heartstrings, which is perhaps the greatest reward any poet could hope for.

The expression “Poetry and Poetry” originates from the Han Dynasty (206 BC- 220 AD). During this period, the essential characteristics of poetry were considered to be expressions of the thoughts and feelings of human beings and the spirit world. As the first special art performance by people with disabilities attempted to integrate music, dance, and poetry, it showcased an even more emotional side of poetry. The actresses who are deaf used their body movements to create a creative background and to showcase the cultural context of each poem. The performers who could not move used their language skills to convey the charms and subtleties of the poetic words. Together, they complimented and fit together well.

This drama, created by the China Disabled People’s Performing Art Troupe, featured three different Chapters of poems acted out in special artistic performances. From the first Chapter called “Why do People Write Poems,” to the second chapter, when it becomes clear why people today should learn about ancient literature. The last chapter focuses on the legacy of traditional culture and classical Chinese poetry. Since their first performance, the troupe has received invitations from numerous primary and secondary schools throughout Beijing. The students responded deeply to the charms of the poetry and gained a more in-depth understanding of their culture.

Why write poetry? The first act of the first chapter called “If the Poet had no Poetic Words,” is represented by masked people who lived in ignorance. Although they were confused and exhausted, and the masks were restricting and made everyone frightened, this constraint also made them more eager to express themselves. Perhaps there are no better actors who can express the desire for expression than those who are deaf. It is even more effective when they move collectively as one, on stage, thus making the dance appear more powerful and inspiring.

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As society and culture developed, a rhythmic and emotionally linguistic form of poetry also emerged. It combined music and dance. As people began to recognize themselves in the poetry verses, they were inspired to express themselves. On stage, poets from different eras appeared in succession, which was challenging to portray for the actors who are deaf. In the past, they only needed to be dancers. But now they had to represent the words of the poems through dance in order to portray a deeper understanding of anicent poets Li Bai, Li Qingzhao and others.

Li Bai wrote,

 “The lone sail sails away from the sky, the sky is empty, but we can see the flow of the Yangtze River.”

In another passage, poet Su Shi’s bitterness and frustration is evident when he writes,

“I hope people will live forever, a thousand miles away.”

This also includes his thoughts on relatives and friends. Li Qingzhao, who is “miserable,” is nostalgic over her late husband’s death. She shows the desolation of her personal circumstances, but also speaks of concern over her country’s destruction. The actor who played Li Qingzhao is deaf. Everyday he rehearses until midnight and then takes another two hours of his time to read and do research.

As fast-paced music plays, the actors who are deaf portray different poets on stage. As they do so, they must consider the rhythm instructions of the sign language teacher whilst also focusing on their performance. They cannot separate themselves from their roles. Works by famous poets such as Wang Wei, a Tang Dynasty Chinese poet and Ma Zhiyuan, a poet and playright whose poetry “Senior Brothers in Shandong on September 9” to “Yue Jingling in Cold Rain,” and “Tian Jingsha Qiu Si,” sound even more emotional and poignant when
performed by these actors.

Most of the themes are related to popular poems often seen in primary and secondary school textbooks, such as “Will Enter Wine,” “Difficulties in Roads,” “The House is Broken by the Autumn Wind,” and “Tenglu Bird House”. Students responded enthusiastically to the actors, to the music, and to the poetry readings, which captured these ancient poets’ anxieties, fears, and heroism. Also, in some cases, it helped showcase the poet’s journey while writing the poem, its back story, and even the historical context.

During each 80-minute performance, the actors assembled their own costumes, applied make-up, and set up props. Even imperfect makeup did not affect their emotional expressions. But because of the limited number of actors in the art troupe, those who are deaf needed to play numerous roles. In one of the scenes, an actor who is deaf played his part without any mistakes. But to do so, the effort required 100 times that of someone without a disability. Although actions can be imitated, the portrayal of emotions in each must be felt. The audience can sense the challenges these actors face on stage, which makes their talent and abilities all the more appreciated.

As to why we study ancient poetry, the second Chapter vividly conveys the meaning of the subject. In this chapter, it was as if the ancient poets Li Bai and Li Qingzhao were both in wheelchairs and had time travelled to the modern world. Students like Liu Shijia, who previously had no interest in ancient poetry, became intrigued by the performances because they cleverly incorporated students’ hobbies and favorite games, which helped the students learn the poetry. Liu Sijia, who used lots of slang, suddenly understood the value of learning poetry for its concise language, meticulous composition and abundance of emotions.

Under the guidance of the actors, the students were given the opportunity to read the poems aloud, and they still cannot forget the euphoria they felt. The seemingly odd and unusual layout and set up of of the stage underscored just how fast paced everyone in society is today.

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When, as a society, we started devoting hours to the internet and internet novels, this changed our reading habits and fostered a kind of uncaring attitude towards traditional culture. Some say poetry is divorced from our modern times. But when the actors stood on stage, performing a poem from over 1600 years ago, they managed to link the old to the new. Even though times have changed, and life is different, peoples’ feelings and concerns remain the same. The third Chapter is about the theme of inheritance. When the actress who is deaf recited the poems in her unclear, yet somewhat clumsy voice, it was so shocking and poignant that it is almost impossible to describe.

As the first staged special art play to integrate music, dance, and poetry performed by people with disabilities, the performance was extremely moving, whether it was because the actors pushed beyond their physical limitations or because of the touching scene in front of them, or because of a certain poem that highlighted their love and sentiment for their home country or because the play talked about human fate and destiny. When the audience listened to the actors read the poems aloud, even without historical knowledge, a poetic seed was sown in their hearts. The future of that seed doesn’t matter. Whether it continues to germinate or not, hearts were touched in those moments, which may be exactly the response the poets were looking for all those years ago.

by Wang Yumeng
Photography by Zhang Heyong

This story is part of a series of articles published as an exclusive editorial exchange between China Press for People with Disabilities & Spring Breeze and ABILITY Magazine.

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