Beijing shadow puppet troupe breaks out shows for Winter Games

Winter Games

BEIJING: Two graceful figures flick a puck back and forth across imaginary ice, before a tussle and a victory lap for one skater, in a portrayal of real-life battles set to take place at the Winter Olympics opening in China’s capital next week.

The Dragon in the Sky shadow puppet troupe is hoping its Olympic-themed shows will draw more people to its small theatre on the outskirts of Beijing, which employs around 40 puppeteers, all of whom are little people.

The troupe, which started its business in 2007, makes its own puppets, carving the intricate cutouts from leather and painting them in vibrant colours, a technique that has barely changed over thousands of years.

“We had to repeatedly watch videos of Winter Olympic Games, such as ice hockey, curling and skating, to design the most realistic and accurate shadow puppet movements,” said 24-year-old puppeteer Chai Yanji after a recent show.

Chai and his colleagues, who have dwarfism, earn about 5,000 yuan to 6,000 yuan (US$790 to  US$950) a month, and have their meals and accommodation provided by the theatre.

During the show, five puppeteers stood behind a white curtain, energetically manoeuvring the limbs of the two main characters Ice Prince and Snow Lady with long handles to resemble gliding across the ice.

Families with young children watched as the puppets’ shadows skated, twirled and leaped, accompanied by traditional music.

Since shadow puppets are two-dimensional, it was challenging to show skating in pairs, said Li Hui, another puppeteer.

“Usually we try to keep one shadow character on one side and avoid constantly changing their positions,” Li said.

Though personally more interested in badminton and table tennis than winter sports, Chai is hoping the troupe’s Olympic-themed shows will revive interest in the traditional art form.

Attendance at shows has declined over the years and the theatre has been hit hard by COVID-19.

Undeterred, Chai still dreams of becoming one of the rare national shadow puppet masters, though he has only been in the profession for a few years. Gaining this accomplishment would bring Chai fame and a chance to travel the world.

“I am at the final step,” he said of the qualifications, where puppeteers are assessed on their skills and demonstrate their experience after participating in numerous performances.

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