Philosophical musings and ancient Chinese myths are reinterpreted on stage at New Vision Arts Festival

“I got an image of me on stage doing puppetry. And then there was music, and I realised it was Philip Glass music. And then I realised it was him playing, so I got an image of me and him on stage together,” he says.

English actor-director Phelim McDermott says it was a dream come true collaborating with legendary American composer Philip Glass to develop the stage show Tao of Glass. Photo: Tristram Kenton

McDermott has previously directed operas featuring music by Glass, but Tao of Glass marks the first time he worked directly with the composer. The two had actually been planning to develop a production based on a book by children’s author Maurice Sendak, but that fell through.

“John McGrath from the Manchester International Festival said to me, ‘Well, if you could really do what you wanted to do with Philip, what would that be? Because we still want you to make a show’,” McDermott recalls.

The challenge then became coming up with a show based on completely new concepts. McDermott wanted to get Glass into a rehearsal room with him so they could improvise together, but he wasn’t sure if that was possible.

“He’s an elder now; he’s surrounded by people who have got to look after him. So the idea that he might just muck around in a rehearsal room with someone like me … it’s a challenge,” McDermott says.

But Glass did turn up, and the two spent five days communicating through their crafts about a range of topics such as life, loss and even mortality. McDermott would come up with different lines, philosophical questions and scenes, which Glass then translated into music. At one point, McDermott lay on the floor to convey what he calls a “near-death state”, and in response Glass improvised a completely new tune on the piano.

Tao of Glass features re-creations of McDermott’s conversations with Glass during their creative process, enhanced by symbolic props such as layers of sheet music. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Emerging from this creative process were 10 brand-new performance pieces, which co-director and dramaturge Kirsty Housley then turned into fanciful set pieces. But for McDermott, it provided much more – he describes the collaboration as a dream come true, having loved Glass’ music since he was a teenager.

“The show is a love story about my relationship to his music, and how it’s guided me at times when I’ve been alone or had difficult times. I’ve really felt it helped me go to a place where I needed to go,” he says.

The reference to Taoism in the show’s title reflects how the two artists explored their connections to the universe by inviting thoughts and feelings to flow through them.

During the show, the audience will see re-creations of the conversations McDermott had with Glass during their time working together, enhanced by the use of symbolic props such as sheet music and puppets.

Tao of Glass also uses puppetry to act out scenes. Photo: Tristram Kenton

“I’ve always been interested in puppets, because they’re interesting and they’re playful. You can go to places with puppetry that maybe it’s harder [to do] with acting,” McDermott says. “It’s an exploration of whether you can take puppetry to a spiritual place.”

Tao of Glass, which originally premiered at the Manchester International Festival 2019, will be presented from October 26 to 29 in the theatre at Hong Kong City Hall.

Another production being showcased at the New Vision Arts Festival, Book of Mountains and Seas, is a daring new work of vocal theatre by Chinese-American composer Huang Ruo and American puppeteer, designer and director Basil Twist.

Based on the classic Chinese collection of myths that shares the same title and dates back to the 4th century BC, the production seeks to draw parallels between ancient fables and the present-day struggle with climate change.

Using silk, lanterns and driftwood branches, Twist creates a fantastical world on stage, with giant puppets of sunbirds, demons and hairy giants bringing old tales of creation to life. These are accompanied by Huang’s original music, which is performed by the 12-member Ars Nova Copenhagen vocal ensemble.

Book of Mountains and Seas features original music by Chinese-American composer Huang Ruo, performed by the Ars Nova Copenhagen vocal ensemble. Photo: Teddy Wolff

“I call it vocal theatre because it is sung by 12 singers with two percussionists and six puppeteers. So it’s not a regular opera,” Huang says. “But they’re not just singing, they’re also interacting. They’re interpreting their story through movements, through puppetry.”

While Twist has previously choreographed many puppet shows to music, Book of Mountains and Seas is his first collaboration with a composer, with newly created tunes incorporated into his work.

“[Huang was] telling me his intentions even before the music was finished. I loved it,” Twist recalls. “I love the musical mind, the mind of a composer – how they think, how ideas are conveyed.”

In one of the four Chinese myths presented during the show, the giant Kua Fu – represented by a puppet made of driftwood that resembles wrinkled skin – drinks two rivers dry as he chases the sun around the Earth, but dies of thirst before he can reach another water source. His fallen body gives rise to a forest of peach blossom trees that symbolises paradise.

One of the four Chinese myths depicted in Book of Mountains and Seas is about the giant Kua Fu, represented by a large puppet made of driftwood, chasing the sun around the Earth. Photo: Ólafur Gestsson

Huang sees parallels between that ancient tale and what is happening in the world today. “We consume nature. We drink all the water. We cut the trees,” he says. “We destroy nature and cause our downfall. In the end, the sun is still there, but we are gone. It’s only after our downfall that nature has the last laugh.”

Twist notes that puppetry allows the production to remain playful even as it conveys a serious message. “It invites the audience to participate with their minds – not just in the meanings on stage, but the meanings that connect to their lives in the larger world,” he says.

“The stories are so huge, so epic. If you present them in small, simple ways, people make those epic jumps in their own minds, and it makes their experiences more powerful.”

Book of Mountains and Seas originally premiered in November 2021 in Copenhagen, Denmark. The production will take the stage in Hong Kong on November 3 and 4 in the auditorium of Kwai Tsing Theatre.

The New Vision Arts Festival 2023 will take place from October 20 to November 19, with live performances presented at various venues across Hong Kong. For the complete schedule and ticketing information, visit nvaf.gov.hk.


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