The Juilliard School of Music
Studying Western Performing

Kuo Hsiao-chuang, an internationally renowned Peking opera actress, a worker in Chinese traditional stage art, a representative of women of conservative thinking and classical look, was about to go overseas and study abroad. This was indeed an eye opener.

Under the arrangement of the US Asia Foundation, she was awarded one year's scholarship to allow her to go to the United States to do research, to visit and to do study tour. She chose New York, the global metropolis, and its Juilliard School of Music as the institution for her study tour.

Long before Kuo Hsiao-chuang founded the Ya Yin Ensemble, she had heard about the Juilliard School of Music and longed for it. Touring the US several times, every time she came to New York and the Lincoln Center her knowledge about Juilliard would be enhanced, because they were adjacent to each other and formed the culture and art district of Manhattan. This time, she was really coming here to study, and her heart was filled with joy and nervousness.

Her joy was for being able to come to the Juilliard School she had long admired, to do comparative study of Eastern and Western performing systems, their similarities and differences, comparing Chinese opera with the different characteristics of Western opera. What she hoped for most was to assimilate with an open mind the good quality and fortes of modern Western acting. She was nervous about her language ability and adapting to the environment. She had to strengthen her ability in English conversation, and ability to listen to and write in English, so as to attend classes and communicate without difficulty at Juilliard.

And so, in early summer 1982, she commenced her year-long American study tour. She chose the Language Center of the University of California, Berkeley at San Francisco as her first stop, to do 10 weeks of English enhancement training here.

On the day of reporting for enrollment, Kuo Hsiao-chuang was escorted by her 3rd younger sister and her husband who lived in the US, and another younger sister Plump Girl, a large party and very eye catching. Henceforth, Plump Girl became her guardian, responsible for looking after her bed and board. They rented a student dormitory in Berkeley. Kuo Hsiao-chuang resumed her student life as when she studied at the University of Chinese Culture. She was casually dressed, in a light color dress, lightly made up, shod in sneakers. She shelved the achievements of movie star and actress for the time being. She had come to America, a foreign place, to re-experience a student・s life. She had already adjusted her mood, resolved to freeze temporarily the self of the past, just remembering the self who today wanted to learn. So she seemed relaxed, leisurely and comfortably, to adapt to this American study tour.

Every day she walked from the dorm to school, polished up her pronunciation practice, and busy reciting text books. This was not difficult for her. Ever since her childhood days at drama school, to entering the opera troupe, to Ya Yin Ensemble, she had long formed the ability of reading out scripts aloud, and so reciting books was an easy job. So in addition to the formal language course, she looked for more opportunities to get along with teachers or classmates: a cup of coffee, a movie show, to enhance the foundation of face to face conversation.

There were many shopping malls near Berkeley, clean and bustling, with a full range of various merchandise, everyday goods, stationery, gifts, antiques, Chinese and Western restaurants. You name it. Walking along them was a feast for the eyes. And the small but refined coffee shops catering for students even extended sideways into the sidewalks. The seats were filled with young people chatting, the aroma of coffee drifted about. Here it was possible for one to spend a whole afternoon in leisurely comfort. And Kuo Hsiao-chuang would always make full use of such opportunities for leisurely shopping to chat with shop assistants and strengthen her conversational proficiency.

From San Francisco on to New York, that was the start of formal studies. In San Francisco, it was not just language enhancement, but more significantly adaptation to the American way of life. Kuo Hsiao-chuang was highly adaptable. She could thoroughly do as the Romans do when in Rome; especially in eating. She fell in love with Western cooking, with simple meals, and gradually became estranged with the oily Chinese dishes. Even Plump Girl felt that Sis was getting 'Westernized' in her ways. And so, arriving in New York, she quickly settled down and went straight to knock on the door of Juilliard School of Music.

The main door of Juilliard's was not grand at all. It should rather be described as the delicate type. But once inside, one then felt its 'greatness'. Not just the large rooms for teaching, but outside the classroom, beside the staircase, there were open spaces reserved for many students to stretch their bodies and limbs, to spring up and practice their dance steps. As a new student, having toured round the campus once, her first impression was the simplicity, asceticism and liveliness of Juilliard. A wave of enthusiasm was rolling inside her. She saw students coming and going in a hurry, heads high and chests up, carrying violins or books, with relaxation and self-contentment showing on their faces. From first contact, Kuo Hsiao-chuang was already confident that she could seek knowledge happily in this institution, and would have ample rewards.

She began to select courses. According to timetabling arrangements, Kuo Hsiao-chuang should have completed selection of the following week's courses in the week before. She had selected at different times a lot of courses, such as directing, drama theory, etc. After several weeks, she found that there was too much theory and too heavy a load, so she selected body and limb performance courses. In sum: this was of great help to her. She gained a lot. She had the deepest impression of selecting the operatic performing course. This was mainly basic movement teaching. Since Western operas were mostly set in the Middle Ages, costumes and accessory items were most elaborate. From head gears to long sweeping robes, not only were they big and heavy, almost comparable to Chinese opera costumes, but required postures and movements to be upright and forceful. Kuo Hsiao-chuang paid special attention to the main point of the training. It lay in being elegant, dignified and stable, an expression of having the right bearing. Refined dance steps, stepping out in big strides, not many arm movements, concentrating on peripheral circular movements of the shoulders, with a limited range of matching movements, primarily body movement positions and singing postures. Students practiced again and again the beauty of body postures, nurturing that classical air of elegance. This gave Kuo Hsiao-chuang great inspiration. Later, when she played the Princess in the "Red Ribbon Tragedy", and Meng Li-chun in "Romance of Rebirth", she was immersed in the role of a noble character, nurturing for herself a bearing of being at ease, self-confident and elegant. Before going on stage and acting, she could already express through natural posture an air of fresh refinement.

Voice projection training for stage plays made Kuo Hsiao-chuang realize in depth the difference between stage voice teaching of China and of the West. From tongue rolling to tongue twister, they focused on expanding the lung・s capacity, making the voice projection broad and rich. Western opera obviously centered on volume. But Chinese opera voice projection centered on delicate singing, with more meticulous vocal techniques. Hence, having comprehended the difference between the two, Kuo Hsiao-chuang listed the notes of this part for reference with an attitude of appreciation.

She still lived in a rented apartment near the school so she could go to school leisurely every day, spared from the need of driving to school in a hurry. Usually she would get up at day break, first drilled in Chinese opera basic techniques and voice training. She attended school at 8:30. At noon she had lunch at the restaurant next to the school with Plump Girl or classmates. Classes continued in the afternoon. If she had no classes then she went shopping. New York was prosperous and bustling, always a paradise for shoppers, offering people places to shop around endlessly all the time. The evenings were the time for quality activities for Kuo Hsiao-chuang. On most days she would mainly watch shows. From Broadway to Off Broadway, from Soho to Montague Avenue, from watching shows to viewing objects d'art, her heart was filled with an ardor for culture. Also at this time she was inebriated in the movies of Akiro Kurosuwa. She found the characters・ images, costume and make-up in "Throne of Blood" and "The Seven Samurais" very close to Chinese opera, and therefore studied them seriously.

At this time, Kuo Hsiao-chuang selected another course in mime. The first day she attended the course, she saw everybody sitting on the floor in a circle within the classroom. There were over 20 in the class, with her being the only foreign student. The teacher's instructions focused on inspired and improvised performance. As students were sitting crowded together on the floor, the teacher suggested a theme, "How does a flower bloom?" He asked each one to base on what he or she knew, imagined it and acted it out. Kuo Hsiao-chuang was the very last performer. Even though she had never personally witnessed how a flower blossomed, having seen the classmates acting it out before her, she made haste to visualize the sight of a flower from a bud to blossoming. Also given her rich grounding in performance, so when it came to her turn to perform, she started from her original posture of sitting on the floor, naturally stretched out and moved, interpreting the pretty sight of a blossoming flower, making the teacher and classmates admire her.

The main thing of mime was limb training, with rigorous demands on control of flexibility. Since there was no dialogue or monologue in the whole play, it all depended on body language expressions. Hence it made great demands on delicate small movements. This series of movement expressions, besides being delicate, must also be clear and concise. Reaction must be agile with impromptu combinations. Every time she saw the teacher guiding students in practice, she would think of what Professor Yu Ta-kang kept telling her, "An actor does not merely imitate movements. The most important thing is creativity. "Now she comprehended fully in the mime lessons: one topic, one episode, one chain of events, and the actor had to create movements and expressions to act it out completely. This should be a brainwave, an impact of creativity, instant reaction, instant organization, instant performance. The feelings within Kuo Hsiao-chuang's mind were strong. The influence on Ya Yin Ensemble's performances thereafter was great.

New York might be called a paradise for performing artists. The most popular were mimes: on the streets, at bars, studio theaters, there were people performing them almost anywhere. Bits of everyday life were picked up as subject matter. Instant performance was put up whenever one felt like it, and it would always win laughter and cheers. Hence there were also training courses for mimes outside the School. Many enthusiasts came to study the art. The Professor of Mimes at Juilliard often taught part-time outside the School. By this time he already knew that Kuo Hsiao-chuang was a famous Peking opera actress and had watched videos of her performance and greatly admired her. The two often exchanged experiences on performing. Therefore she was also invited by him to come to training courses outside the school, to give demonstrations on Chinese opera movements. Kuo Hsiao-chuang used "Picking Up the Jade Bracelet" as example to perform the movement and gestures of driving chickens, in contrast to Western miming. It aroused much interest among the non-Chinese. They marvelled at the delicate performing techniques of Chinese opera.

Kuo Hsiao-chuang well remembered that the purpose of her American sojourn was to learn, not to perform. She tried her best to avoid attracting people・s attention, and to make herself relax, and keep a light heart. After attending the mime training course outside the School a few times, she declined to participate again. At the same time she selected another basic training course in ballet. She watched a group of classmates putting on ballet shoes, standing on tip toes in rising and falling movements, leaping, stretching out arms, turning the body into a circle, appearing so light and lithe, overflowing with a youthful beauty. In her heart Kuo Hsiao-chuang felt an intimate pleasure. When she was small and learning the art at drama school, the walking on tiptoe drilling was even more difficult and more painful. But she still had a great love for ballet shoes. While she had not yet recovered from her wounded feet, she did not put them on, just holding them in her hands, feeling the tenderness, delicacy and elegance of ballet.

Basic training in ballet was a training of the beauty of body lines. It required light, tender and delicate movements, fully expressing a refined sense of rhythm. In this course, Kuo Hsiao-chuang was deeply impressed. She urged herself to reflect, trying hard to keep the beauty of her figure. She completely appreciated that when an outstanding actor appeared on stage, the first thing that caught the eye of the audience was her figure. The beauty of body lines trained up by ballet thus became the standard benchmark Kuo Hsiao-chuang would observe. Henceforth, there were obvious changes in her diet and sports habits. All these years she had practiced it faithfully, year in, year out. Everything was just for keeping an agile, tender and beautiful figure. She felt that as an actor this was the principle that should be observed.

There was a theater within Juilliard which was well equipped, with about a thousand seats. Not only were students' practice performances put up there, it also sold tickets publicly. The School spent a lot of effort and a lot of time on an opera, from rehearsal to performance, rehearsing again and again from afternoon to late at night. Teachers and students were fused together as one. Watching the whole process of a production, it seemed most moving. Almost every production was a crystallization of sweat and tears.

On the opening night, crowds who came for the show stretched from the School entrance to the theater. Kuo Hsiao-chuang would often stand quietly at Lincoln Square. When her eyes moved from Juilliard to Lincoln Center, an urge would rise in her heart. She mused in silence: how many stars of tomorrow would come out of Juilliard and one day perform in the Lincoln Center theater, attaining the acme of international art, receiving accolade from the public at large. Kuo Hsiao-chuang stared at the sparkling chandelier of the Lincoln Center lobby, brightly glittering. She made herself a wish: she would lead Ya Yin Ensemble to come and perform at the Lincoln Center Theater. Not an assorted combination of bustling excerpts, but a complete, lively and representative Peking opera.

Her wish was finally fulfilled 2 years later in 1984. Ya Yin Ensemble made a special trip to come and perform the complete opera "The White Snake and Hsu Hsien" at the Alice Tolly Hall in the Lincoln Center, winning high acclaim from Chinese and American audiences, and she won the Most Outstanding Asian Art Award.

The year at Juilliard should be the most memorable experience of her life. She studied hard, taking in Western performing techniques. Two questions kept rising in her mind: one was she wanted to study with concentration and an open mind. Therefore her principle in selecting courses was 'selective' rather than 'choosing many', lest she should create for herself pressure of course work. It would also give her time to digest and ruminate the courses, and reflect on the question of revising and strengthening future directions for Ya Yin's shows. The second was she had always borne in mind that, before coming to study in the US, seniors and colleagues in the Chinese opera field had kept asking her: Did Chinese opera actors need to study abroad? What were you going to study for? All these questions were still weighing at the bottom of her heart and Kuo Hsiao-chuang had to have a clear answer.

In fact, when she planned to come to the US for further studies, she already had a clear answer. It was only that whether a year in the US could make Kuo Hsiao-chuang's answer complete and full was still an unknown factor. It was not until the study at Juilliard came to an end, she settled down and did a review, only then was she clear that the answer was positive and satisfactory. The cultural history of China and the West each had its different background and course of development. But the humanities spirit and contents of life were still linked and alike. Kuo Hsiao-chuang had felt a lot at Juilliard. She had gained a lot. And what was most substantial and pounding on the door of her heart strongly, was the relationship between art and humanity. This was the connection of flesh and blood, and where emotions lay. Take away the humanity content, and art would die. The acting on stage would become impoverished, spiritless and feeble. She was deeply moved. In a year・s study, so long as she had this realization, Kuo Hsiao-chuang felt that she was satisfied, and had obtained in full the answer that she had come to America to seek.

As for Ya Yin Ensemble and the future of reforms in Chinese opera, she had a more firm sense of direction: take the human path, strengthen the inquiry into humanity in the script, actors should strengthen acting that reflected human reactions. These were the essence of Western drama and could well be transplanted to the antiquated Chines Peking opera. In a reform of the constitution, Chinese opera was given new life. Kuo Hsiao-chuang came out of Juilliard, looked up at the sky above Lincoln Square, and felt even more confident, more powerful. Tomorrow she would pack up and go home, plunging anew into the work of renovating and reforming the art of Chinese opera.