Cao Yu’s Thunderstorm, written in 1933 when he was just 23 while studying western theatre and arts at Qinghua University, was the first of his eight plays. Set in the feudal society of China in the 1920s, the tragedy follows the complicated love entanglements in (and within) the Zhou family. Thunderstorm made Cao’s name by spotlighting incest and premarital pregnancy, challenged the conservative male-dominated society of the time, while reflecting the desire for societal change that had grown up during the revolutionary movements of post-WW1 China. The play has been adapted into six films, including Zhang Yimou’s Curse of the Golden Flower (2006). It was probably inevitable that it would one day be adapted for dance.
Thunderstorm is a multi-disciplinary art piece combining mime theatre and mainly contemporary dance, adapted by award-winning theatre artist Tang Shu-wing. First performed in 2012, it consists of choreography by Mui Cheuk-yin and Xing Liang, as well as music selected from a number of modern composers, including Chinese contemporary classical composer Tan Dun, American film score composer Brian Crain, and Japanese visual and sound artist Ryoji Ikeda, among others. It won three major awards at the Hong Kong Dance Alliance Dance Awards the next year, and since then had been performed in Singapore and various cities across China. This year’s reprise was ably performed by the Hong Kong Dance Company, Voy Arts Ensemble and the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. But the question of Tang’s gamble-like decision to turn a play into a dance production remains: can contemporary dance supplant Thunderstorm’s dialogue?
The greatest challenge for Tang and his team was to turn an almost 80,000-word script into a short 70-minute dance performance. Unlike a Chinese opera, say, with a straightforward plot ending in glorious tragedy or with the villain punished and hero rewarded, Cao’s play has neither hero nor villain: all his characters are victims. Because a three-decade-long entanglement between two families would have been difficult for the audience to comprehend without dialogue, the drama is here compressed into a single stormy night as characters, complex relationships and buried histories come together to confront the past.
This required streamlining the plot and removing some characters, while the choreography helps illuminate personalities: the energetic acrobatic for a young man infatuated with a girl, and the timid maidservant’s vivacity in skips and rapid toying with her cleaning cloth. Furthermore, Tang cleverly re-tells Thunderstorm mostly by inviting the audience into the characters’ minds. Sickly teal lighting highlights the matriarch drowning in an empty house. The emotionally charged music and sounds of thunderstorm further cue the transition from the physical reality (which most of the time leaves out music) into the psychological space of the characters.
Dance can capture internal turmoil as well as Cao’s original dialogue. The matriarch’s belief in her position in the house, displayed by quick authoritative movements, is undone when her husband forces her down, and her son and lover force medicine down her, leaving it clear that she lives entirely subject to the will of men. The tossing and turning of the dancers created a thunderstorm within the walls of the room. The subsequent explosive solo dance by Hua Chi-yu, who plays the matriarch, makes use of her fan to cover and uncover her face; the matriarch is in palpable desolation at finding herself void of respect in her own household.
And yet, the choreography did not seem to stretch the dancers as much as might have; had it been more challenging, the tension in the story might have been more completely communicated. Having characters scream in frustration was not sufficient compensation for feelings that might have been expressed through movement.
In his adaptation, Tang lightened the bleak ending replete with death, and focuses on the social commentary of Cao’s original play. Tang instead ends with matriarch standing and looking on at her crumbled family, leaving a temporary calmness in the eye of the thunderstorm. Cao’s play is challenging; any adaptation needs to streamline and choose a focus. Tang and his team take a psychological turn and deliver a tragedy that spotlights issues of gender and sex which are still relevant to Hong Kong today.
Though based on Cao’s play, the dance n can stand alone. But instead of a focus on the complicated social problems of a still-feudal 1920s China, Tang offers the modern Hong Kong audience an accessible, relatable introduction to a modern Chinese classic.