How a man from a vil­lage changed tra­di­tional art form

China Daily (Canada) - - NEWS CAPSULE - By CHENNAN

In 1996, Li Yu­gang, the first per­son in his home­town, a re­mote vil­lage in North­east China’s Jilin province, to pass the na­tional univer­sity en­trance exam, had to drop out be­cause his fam­ily could not af­ford col­lege fees.

How­ever, Li, then 19, did not want to farm the land like his an­ces­tors had done for generations. So, he left home to pur­sue his dream of per­form­ing and be­came a club singer.

“Ev­ery­one laughed at me and they said I was gam­bling,” says Li, now 38.

A year later, he re­turned home with­out achiev­ing suc­cess. “Those were my dark­est days and I even con­tem­plated sui­cide,” he says.

In 2000, Li left home again and tried to make a liv­ing in Shen­zhen, in south­ern Guang­dong province. He worked at a record store by day and sang at a bar by night.

Things did not get bet­ter un­til one night he stood in for a girl, who was sup­posed to sing a duet with him. He sang both the male and the fe­male parts, which made the au­di­ence happy.

From then on, Li worked on his act, bor­row­ing from the nan dan genre (males play­ing fe­male roles) in Pek­ing Opera, giv­ing the tra­di­tional art form a mod­ern edge by com­bin­ing it with pop mu­sic.

It paid off. In 2006, with his cross-dress­ing per­for­mances, Li had his break­through — per­form­ing on CCTV’s pop­u­lar tal­ent show Star Boule­vard, a pro­gram for grass­roots artists.

Now, Li is a house­hold­name on the mu­sic scene.

With three stu­dio al­bums be­hind him, he has per­formed twice onCCTV’s most watched an­nual Spring Fes­ti­val Gala — in 2012 and 2013.

His stage pro­duc­tions— The Paint­ing of Four Beau­ties and Flower in Mir­ror, Moon in Wa­ter — have toured China and abroad, in­clud­ing New York and Syd­ney.

To mark the 10th an­niver­sary of his Star Boule­vard per­for­mance, Li will launch his lat­est tour in Bei­jing on Dec 17 at the Work­ers’ Gym­na­sium. He will visit Shang­hai, Chengdu, Toronto, San Fran­cisco and Syd­ney next year.

“The past 10 years saw my per­sonal rein­ven­tion. I wanted to do ashowthat show­cases my mem­o­rable mo­ments on­stage,” says Li, who will per­form some of the clas­sic fe­male char­ac­ters he has por­trayed, such as the four an­cient Chi­nese beau­ties: Xi Shi of the Spring and Au­tumn Pe­riod (770-476 BC); Wang Zhao­jun of the Western Han Dy­nasty (206 BC-AD 24); Diao Chan of the Three King­doms (220-280) and Yang Guifei of the Tang Dy­nasty (618-907).

But while delv­ing into the past, Li also finds him­self be­ing pulled to­ward the fu­ture.

Ma Ji­uyue, mu­sic direc­tor of Li’s up­com­ing tour, who is a com­poser with the China Na­tional Orches­tra and has worked as the mu­sic direc­tor of Li’s show, Flower in Mir­ror, Moon in Wa­ter, in 2010, says: “Au­di­ences are fa­mil­iar with the fe­male roles Li has played. But in this show, he will sing with­out heavy makeup and ex­quis­ite cos­tumes.

“I believe this tour peo­ple see the man those women.”

In 2010, Li was of­fered a con­tract with the China Opera and Dance Drama The­ater as the only per­former with­out pro­fes­sional train­ing to be signed by the troupe.

Mean­while, de­spite at­ten­tion and pop­u­lar­ity, Li has will let be­hind faced mixed re­views of his per­for­mances.

Some Pek­ing Opera ex­perts call Li’s per­for­mances “am­a­teur­ish” and con­demn him for mis­guid­ing the younger au­di­ence. Even his par­ents want him to get a newjob.

But de­spite the con­tro­versy about his work, Li has con­tin­ued to push bound­aries.

In 2015, three years af­ter he with­drew from the lime­light, he re­turned with Lady Zhao­jun, about the leg­endaryWang Zhao­jun, an an­cient Chi­nese beauty who vol­un­teered to marry the ruler of a Hun tribe in exchange for friendly re­la­tions with the Han Dy­nasty (206 BC-AD 220).

To pre­pare for the drama, he trav­eled from Bei­jing to the In­ner Mon­go­lia au­ton­o­mous re­gion, and this not only in­spired him to pro­duce the show but also en­abled him to re­gain his con­fi­dence.

“The trav­els slowed down my ca­reer devel­op­ment. I had lots of time to think and fig­ure out my next move,” says Li, whoalso then got in­ter­ested in cal­lig­ra­phy and tra­di­tional Chi­nese hand­crafts such as paper-mak­ing and silk em­broi­dery.

Li has been look­ing to ex­pand his reper­toire fur­ther.

Re­cently, the pop­u­lar TV show, The King of Com­edy, pro­duced by the Bei­jing TV Sta­tion, had a con­test fea­tur­ing pro­fes­sional co­me­di­ans and ac­tors and singers with­out prior ex­pe­ri­ence in com­edy. Li took part and won.

“I felt free and ex­cited when I per­formed as a co­me­dian. The re­sult was be­yondmy ex­pec­ta­tions and it gives me con­fi­dence to ex­pand my range in the fu­ture,” says Li.

ZOU HONG / CHINA DAILY

Li Yu­gang will launch his lat­est tour in Bei­jing on Dec 17.

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