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Shaolin Warriors at Blackpool Grand Theatre

“I forgot how beautiful it is in here; we really ought to come more often,” my cousin said to me.  Serendipity had placed her, along with her young family, beside us at the Grand Theatre on Sunday for the Shaolin Warriors.  Her five year old son, all blonde curls and blue eyes, was bouncing up and down in his seat, such was his excitement to be at the theatre to see some Kung Fu.  His delighted exclamations made other members of the audience turn and smile as he responded to the light-footed wonder of these remarkable athletes.

The martial artists almost flew across the stage, suspended in the air a moment longer than seemed natural.  Sequences of carefully choreographed drills were performed quickly and gracefully so that manoeuvres which were, in reality, incredibly difficult appeared natural and effortless.  The vision of the choreography was a highlight of the show.  A variety of set pieces played into the over-arching narrative of a young man’s journey from fear to control.  Particularly stunning were the qigong, the animal techniques, the drunken monkey sequence and the fighting fan formations.

Audience interaction was a key feature of the show’s success.  A pair of men had the chance to copy a combat sequence in the first half.  One of the pair appeared to have had some martial arts training in the past and picked it up very quickly.  In the second half, approximately twenty children from the audience took to the stage to learn a short form, including a high kick.  They managed this with various degrees of accuracy, much to the delight of the audience, and all the children seemed really determined to make an effort.  One young girl in particular looked quite fierce with her fists clenched and her eyes narrowed as she focused on the instructions.

The musical backdrop for the show fluctuated between calming instrumental pieces and more rousing chants and songs.  The Far-Eastern music sounded carefully considered and matched the pace of the action well.  Some of the pieces resembled the electronic meditation tracks which can be bought at tourist attractions.  Perhaps as a consequence of the ubiquity of these sounds, I felt that the music cheapened the integrity of the show at these points, bordering on a stereotypical image of ‘eastern mysticism’ rather than the authentic tradition which was evidenced in the physical display.  The costumes were designed to draw attention to the different levels of mastery, from the young initiate in grey, simple clothing to the master in his ornately embellished silks.  At one point the troupe wore yellow costumes with long, draped sleeves which fluttered elegantly over their heads as they performed their display.  The overall effect of the lighting, sets and costumes was one of simplicity and grace which lent a meditative mood to the proceedings.

My sister, a skilled martial artist, joined me at the show and she enjoyed the choreography very much, although she commented that the sequences from the older performers were not ‘on point to the max’, which didn’t seem to be the case with the younger members of the troupe.  We both zoned out a little when the weaponry sequences were underway, this reminding us of the long action sequences in films which tend to send us to sleep.  We did, however, wake up again when one of the performers whipped a long chain under his body while he was seated, legs out in front of him, on the stage.  He hopped up on his bottom high enough into the air to allow the chain to pass under him several times.  The precision of these segments were especially impressive.  It was clear that the slightest fault would be incredibly painful.

Perhaps the loudest gasps of the evening, of which there were many, came when the youngest performers stood on one leg, holding the other straight up beside their head to point at the ceiling, before falling gracefully down onto the stage, maintaining this pose, so that they landed doing the splits.  I suspect the majority of the gasps came from the male members of the audience.  There were gasps aplenty throughout the evening.  If gasps were tangible, physical things, the ushers would have had one hell of a clean up operation after the show.

The Shaolin Warriors are continuing their tour nationwide this summer.  For details of this season’s upcoming shows at The Grand, visit their website.

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