“Keanu Fu” at the Grand Mal Ballet

Bullet Time
Bullet time ballet.

Since joining the faculty of the Boston Conservatory this fall, I’ve pondered the processes by which performing arts technique changes — and resists change — over time. Contemporary ballet students, for example, are taught fundamentally the same things they were in the 1800s. They’re probably hit with sticks less frequently, but the codification of positions, movements and repertory remains. Conservatories are, by extension, typically no bastions of liberal thought or technological advancement. Personally, as a classically trained bunhead-slash-technology-obsessed-gearhead, employment within such an establishment poses some vexing questions, namely: How can conservatories be committed to innovation? What is the relationship between technique and technology over time? Why do New England bagels taste like sadness?

I’ve found a potentially useful case study in martial arts. For over 200 years, Chinese opera schools have trained their students in kung fu, resulting in ambidextrous artists that sing, act and move according to classical tradition. The first kung fu films in the late 1930s starred Chinese opera singers, and for decades thereafter, graduates of Chinese opera schools (including Jackie Chan and Jet Li) found international stardom through the kung fu cinema. In the early ‘70s, Chinese directors began placing actors into bodices attached to wires and pulleys, puppeting them through the air with the assistance of off-screen muscle. Such technology — nearly identical to those used to make ballerinas fly in 18th century Russian proscenium ballets — permitted martial artists to perform previously impossible feats of speed and virtuosity, thus markedly mutating classical kung fu technique. Film and fight director Yuen Woo Ping (a graduate of the Peking opera school, natch) created some of the most acclaimed kung fu films of all time using wired actors, including Jackie Chan in Drunken Master and Jet Li in Fist of Legend. This new form, a recombination of abandoned Russian ballet stagecraft and classical Chinese martial arts, came to be affectionately known as wire fu.

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Still, innovations within artistic traditions tend to fold in on themselves over time. In the late ‘90s, then-emerging directors Andy and Lana Wachowski fell in love with the choreography of Fist of Legend and recruited Woo Ping to work with them on a risky concept film called The Matrix. They paired Ping with special effects master (and NYU Tisch School of the Arts conservatory graduate, natch) John Gaeta to “create a (fight) ballet that could never be staged in real life.” With their creative dream team in place, the Wachowskis discovered a major staffing issue: in contrast to the actors Ping typically worked with, the cast of The Matrix didn’t graduate from Chinese opera schools and definitely didn’t know kung fu. The wire fu ballets Ping and Gaeta planned were extraordinarily dangerous — a health hazard for black belts, let alone for Keanu Reeves, then best known for his role as Ted in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. To bring the actors up to fighting speed, Ping created a six-month-long kung fu intensive modeled after the martial arts training of the Chinese opera conservatory. Kung fu camp broke Carrie-Anne Moss’s leg, temporarily paralyzed Reeves and required Hugo Weaving to get hip surgery. But it steeped the actors in kung fu and wire fu, and prepared them for Ping’s grand mal ballet.

Gaeta’s SFX team, meanwhile, engineered the digital technologies necessary to augment wire fu with green screen and “time slice” — where 100 still-cameras capture movement in an impossible arc to create the cinematic innovation now called “bullet time.” The success of The Matrix — which could have been a train wreck of half-baked cinematic tech and “Keanu Fu” — redefined the filmic fight paradigm from the faux-realism of wire fu to magically surreal frozen time. Ping went on to deploy these techniques and technologies in later films (Kill Bill, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and the choreo-cinematic innovation of “bullet time” troped its way into video games (Max Payne, Red Dead Redemption), action flicks (Transformers, Spiderman), television shows (Sherlock, The Simpsons), even reality TV dance competitions (America’s Got Talent, So You Think You Can Dance?). The entertainment industry pivoted to The Matrix’s kinaesthetic innovations made possible by smashing into one another conservatory training, a classical art form and emerging technologies.

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Technique and technology may make for occasionally radical bedfellows, but the relationship between the two is complex and codependent. A “technique” is a specific means by which a task is performed, through which a genealogy of that task’s history can be read. For example, one can discuss keyboard fingering technique from Bach to Brahms, just as one can discuss choreographic techniques from Beauchamp to Battle or Wing Chun Kung Fu from its origins with Wong Wah Bo in Chinese Opera to Bruce Lee. “Techniques” (artistic, martial or otherwise) are preserved to pass on an art’s history, and to ensure that history’s future. The codification of technique is fundamentally conservative, a maintenance necessary to keep classical repertory from extinction, and collective memory from being extinguished.

While techniques are oriented towards immortality, technologies are destined to disappear. “Technology” here can be defined as the platforms necessary for “technique” to be deployed. For example, aqua vitae (ethanol) torches were used in the 1500s because, despite setting a lot of people on fire, they allowed performances to take place indoors, thus decreasing bug bites. When oil lights were invented, they were more practical than aqua vitae — they killed fewer people. After a few decades of technological competition, use of aqua vitae was gradually snuffed out as oil lights gained prevalence.

For the last three centuries, proscenium stages have been the de facto technology for live performance, despite limiting the potential audience size and despite relying on cost structures that invariably grow more expensive with time. Within the last three decades, a new and arguably competing performance technology has come into its own — the Internet — which has catalyzed the creation and popularity of any number of new performance techniques (“Tutting” and “Jookin,” to name a few) that sets no limit on the number of potential audiences an artist can reach and therefore prices most artistic experiences at cheap or free. The quality of performance online is, as of today, arguably worse than the experience of a performance on a stage, but it is not clear that general audiences care about or notice the difference. The ongoing struggles of performing arts organizations to plant and maintain “butts in seats” can be read as an irreversible industry shift: the future of the proscenium stage remains in question.

Creative innovation is never random. It is the miraculous, intended result of individuals’ smashing technical and technological mastery into novel combinations. Technique is vital for the continuation of an art as historical and future-facing phenomena; technology is how technique reaches an audience to begin with.

Earlier this month, I was asked to give lecture to the freshman class of The Boston Conservatory on the subject of paradigmatic shift in the performing arts. I closed my speech as below:

Freshman, you have entered one of the country’s foremost conservatories of the performing arts. You will have unprecedented access to centuries of technical knowledge — and to the modern, disruptive technologies now reshaping your industry. You will never learn more faster, you will never have a greater capacity for risk, you will never be so insulated from failure so long as you live. So what, I ask, will do with this privilege? What is your intention? What are your priorities? Will you master your artistic technique so as to conserve it and pass it to future generations? Or will you hulk-smash that technique into everything you possibly can? Are you here to learn technique, or to change it, work within the dominant paradigm, or shift that paradigm and make it your own? Will you pick the red pill, the blue pill, or maybe both?