Last Spring, from 29 May to 20 June, the Espace Libre theatre presented a remarkable show: La Légende du manuel sacré (The Legend of the Sacred Manual), by Olivier Choinière and Huy-Phong Doàn. directed by Huy-Phong Doàn and produced by the Voies Obscures collective. The depth of the story and the theatrical power of the performance were enriched by the cultural crossing that characterized both the creative process and the show itself.
La Legende is in fact a remarkable example of art emerging from a migrating, minority culture working within the dominant culture. This is not a production that emulates art from the original culture, but rather a hybrid creation rooted in the here and now.
To understand the project, one must know the person who gave it its soul: Huy-Phong Doàn. Living in Montreal since 1992, he worked in most of the Francophone theatres in town as a fight-scene choreographer. He also teaches basic fight techniques at the National Theatre School, the Drama Conservatory, and the Drama Department of the Université du Québec à Montréal. He was born in Vietnam and lived there until the age of 14. He was only six when his father and uncles introduced him to the martial arts. He studied law and art history in Paris while perfecting his martial art techniques with Chinese masters living in France. He also started working in film and theatre as a light choreographer and met actress Louise Lavoie, who brought him to Montreal where, over the last six years, he has choreographed fights in over 30 shows.
Students from the National Theatre School and the Conservatory, inspired by his profoundly human and technically superior teaching, started working with him after graduation. With him, they learned Chinese techniques such as Wushu, the basic method behind the physical work used in the Peking Opera, and soon formed a collective troupe aimed at the production of shows.
Ariane Mnouchkine’s notion that “Theatre is Oriental and drama Occidental” is at the core of La Légende. In this production, physical play, movement in space and stage design have been conceived in terms of Oriental, primarily Chinese, traditions. As Huy-Phong Doàn states: “Acting is close to fighting. It is an intention that starts at one point and goes toward another point with great precision. In the theatre, actors play only with the top of their bodies. In martial arts, one must be grounded: that’s where our strength comes from.” Given Quebec theatre’s interest in the body, Huy-Phong Doàn work appealed to both practitioners and the public. As for the writing of the text itself, young playwright Olivier Choinière (author of Le Bain des Raines, 1998, and Les Trains, 1999) contributed his talent for poetic language and tightly-knit dramatic conflict to create a powerfully evocative spectacle.
Huy-Phong Doàn brought to Quebec theatre not only a stage practice rooted in ancient traditions, but also a discourse which counterpoints contemporary ideas about violence which, for him “is part of life.”The play revolves around a web of revenge connected to the possession of the Sacred Manual, which renders invincible whoever owns it. Huy-Phong Doàn explains: “The revenge theme is central to Asian culture. It is a virtue in Asia to avenge your near and dear ones. Otherwise, you are nobody. In the West, it is the opposite. Because of these conflicting views of the world and vengeance, it is difficult to communicate. I’m interested in violence because I experienced it in Vietnam. Here, the attitude is to ignore it.”
Except for Yvan Bienvenue (especially in Joyeux Noël Julie), a few serious dramatists have dealt with the impulsion to avenge the death of a loved one, leaving this theme in the hands of American fiction filmmakers who treat it in a most primitive way. Setting in motion what simultaneously unites and separates, violence on one hand and love on the other, blood relations and loyalty, La Légende explores avenues of reflection which defy simplistic conclusions. This performance, which combined grace and vigour, interspersed with spectacular fights, enjoyed critical and popular success. The performance of Jean-Pierre Ronfard (who co-directed Le Réve du papillon—The Butterfly’s Dream–with Huy-Phong Doàn at the National Theatre School), emphasized the theme of cross-cultural meeting on the stage of Espace Libre, this crucial space in the development of theatre in Montreal.