Can a gongfu musical get (way) off the ground?

Performers - all dancers in different disciplines - are suspended above the stage during a rehearsal in New York for the musical, Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise.
Performers - all dancers in different disciplines - are suspended above the stage during a rehearsal in New York for the musical, Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • Half a dozen warriors gathered at the base of a plateau, cracking jokes and letting off steam before the moment of truth.

"You ready?" said performer Abdiel Jacobsen, tall and muscular, turning to fellow performer Xavier Townsend, whose slight frame bloomed into a mop of dreadlocks.

"I'm ready," Townsend said. He raised both fists high above his shoulders and stepped into the spotlight, where he was surrounded by a throng of technicians with headsets. One was holding a rope that shot straight up to the ceiling, more than 10 storeys high.

The plateau was that of the Shed - the US$500 million (S$678 million) arts complex at Hudson Yards on Midtown Manhattan's far west side. It was part of the custom-built stage for a new multimillion-dollar "gongfu musical" called Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise, which began previews last Saturday.

The show, the unlikely fruit of an even less likely collaboration - involving Chen Shizheng, the Chinese-American opera impresario; Kung Fu Panda (2008 to 2016) screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger; musician Sia and choreographer Akram Khan - pushed the team to its limits, taking three years to make and crisscrossing as many continents.

And cast members, consisting almost entirely of contemporary dancers who were given a crash curriculum (martial arts training, aerial choreography and singing lessons) to transform them into futuristic warriors, faced an even steeper challenge.

The musical - which takes place in Chinatown in Flushing, Queens, in the near future - tells the story of an exiled sect of gongfu warriors that guards an underground spring infused with the power of eternal life.

The fugitive daughter of the sect's grandmaster, who eloped with a mysterious outsider, gives birth to twins who are separated at birth, only to reunite 18 years later to save the sect, and the world, from a powerful enemy.

Chen, 56, with boyish black hair and a gentle manner, looked on during the rehearsal from a chair, his chin buried deep in his palm.

The ensemble pounded the floor in unison with their staffs, creating a resounding pulse. The grandmaster, played by actor David Patrick Kelly (Twin Peaks on television, Once on Broadway), entered the centre of the semi-circle with Peiju Chien-Pott, a principal in the Martha Graham Dance Company who plays his daughter and two of the show's villains.

Then the fighting began - a brutal ballet complete with swords and a bullwhip.

After a few run-throughs of the scene, Chen halted the action and approached Chien-Pott. Her kicks had not been landing as they should.

"It doesn't read," he said, showing her how to properly position herself. "You're hitting his shoulder, but you want to hit his face."

Chen was born in Changsha, China, and trained as a youth in baguazhang, an early form of gongfu that intoxicated him.

"I've always found martial arts to be one of the most beautiful kinds of movements - the precision and energy and the line of the body," he said. "I'm always shocked that it's not used more on the stage."

He spent more than a year on casting, searching for performers who could match the show's multidisciplinary ambitions. But the musical theatre actors he saw did not make believable fighters and the martial artists could not pull off the requisite acting and dancing.

He decided to narrow his focus to the dance world - largely hip-hop, modern and classical - figuring that he would get an actor's stage presence and a martial artist's core strength and agility in the bargain.

But mastering the fight choreography, even for a cast with extraordinary physical discipline, took longer than expected. That meant less time to practise other aspects of their performances. And more to worry about.

"We were trying to find people who could do the martial arts, acting and singing, but we failed, in a way," Chen acknowledged.

"I'm hoping the physicality and the energy will carry us through."

On the plateau, the technician, who wore a controller around his neck the size of a 12-pack, flipped a switch and hoisted Townsend aloft.

"Whaat!" Townsend shouted, weightless and grinning with delight as the rope pulled him high above the stage and the other members of the cast.

Whether the show would ultimately live up to its lofty ambitions remained to be seen. But for this moment at least, none of that mattered - he could fly.

"Yeah, Xavier," shouted the aerial coordinator from below, craning her neck and smiling. "You look beautiful."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 24, 2019, with the headline 'Can a gongfu musical get (way) off the ground?'. Print Edition | Subscribe