On the morning of September 8, 2017, before the China premiere of Dream of the Red Chamber at the Poly Theatre that evening, three of us, Ann Walter, Bob and Pearl Bergad, chartered a taxi and went to the artists’ enclave outside of Beijing, to visit Dream set/costume designer Tim Yip at his studio. Thanks to light morning traffic, a rarity in Beijing, we arrived in good time and were able to wander around Tim’s studio before he and Yanni Gao, his manager, arrived. We had great fun looking at several life-sized or super-sized models and enjoyed the opportunity to look closely at the fine workmanship of each costume.
Soon after Tim and Yanni arrived, we were escorted to Tim’s office and soon were involved in a lively conversation on contemporary art. Tim is such an easygoing and self-effacing artist and so eager to share his philosophy of art and design. He loves to create sculpture and considers it an interactive art form. He sees the extra layer beneath the exterior, or the tears in the bone, that reminds him of the emotional journey.
He showed us his favorite sculpture/model, Lili. To him, Lily is timeless. She inhabits many different historical backgrounds and can move easily into any part of one’s memory, incorporating history. Seeing Lili will make one see both her and oneself. She is intertwined in both time and space. As Tim was talking, he would move Lili’s head slightly in one or another direction, or move her hand slightly into a different position. The effect was startling. Lili was subtly, but nonetheless totally, transformed into a different person/perspective. There are many versions of Lili, some life-sized and some super-sized, each in her unique poses; but the visitor was always aware that each Lili was quietly participating and communicating.
In addition to costume and set designs, Tim has had a long interest in film. He showed us several film clips, of which Kitchen ( https://www.timyipstudio.com/content/article/98) was a wonderful example. Click here to watch it. This short film won the Best Art Direction Prize at the 8th annual competition of the ASCOFF 8 (A Shaded View on Fashion Films) at the Pompidou Centre in Paris in 2015. To watch a short film on the making of that documentary, click here.
Soon enough our visit was over. We reluctantly took our leave, promising to stay in touch and hoping that we would see Tim in Minnesota before long.
The following is an abbreviated excerpt translated from Tim’s recently published book in which he discusses the evolution of his concept of a new orientalism and his design processes for both the TV series and opera based on Dream of the Red Chamber.
A NEW ORIENTALISM - I traced the development of my concept of a new orientalism to my time working on Beijing operas in Taiwan in the 1990s. That period gave me an opportunity to develop my concept of what is the new Chinese perspective. During my first assignment of Lou Lan Nu there, I came face to face with a revolution going on in Beijing opera. This bold production left a huge impression on me. It was one of the early experimental works that has been proven to stand the test of time. Its avant-garde approach was 180 degrees different from that of traditional Beijing opera. Both the set and costume designs, while still maintaining the pulse of Beijing opera, incorporated the strong theatrical power of Greek tragedies. Working with the artistic staff and opera singers, I began to incorporate western elements such as Viennese masks and costumes, Elizabethan and Renaissance styles and techniques into Chinese tribal costumes. The result was a unique and eclectic style, one that elicited extreme reactions, at both ends of the spectrum, within the theatre world at the time. But this approach also drew popular appeal. In placing contemporary dance into traditional Beijing opera, and juxtaposing Chinese artistic traditions with those from Shakespearean and Greek tragedies, I had begun to find my own voice expressing my artistic philosophy.
During this period in Taiwan I also met legendary choreographer Lin Li Zhen, and found her works mystical, immersive and absorbing. Lin had found her inspiration for stately movements from Taiwan’s indigenous folk culture and, in extending them, she had found an original way for the contemporary dancer to converse with nature through movement. Adding ceremonial make up and costumes, Lin succeeded in infusing her dances with a spiritual dimension as well. In our several collaborations we searched together for the germ of human’s primal emotions, and examined how space, language and movement would fill our imagination. In this way Lin, together with several other dancers/choreographers I met at the time, re-awakened in me my old ruminations on traditional Chinese women’s formalized movements, and energized me to design costumes for them with nature’s movements in mind, to help recall the body’s memory and reaching for their souls. The continual innovation of this group of choreographers thus became the foundation of my own constant experimentation. I took delight in their creative process during which, often against great odds, a new freedom was invented and everyone contributed something from his/her memory to the common ground, filling up this new space. This intense love for tradition had bound us together, driving us down different paths but searching together for ultimate understanding, the nirvana.
DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER - When I took on the costume design in the Chinese 2010 TV series on Dream of the Red Chamber, the first thing I did was to study the famous opera, Peony Pavilion. I learned that in Chinese presentations, the scenery often became the canvas in depicting a young woman’s budding emotions and feelings. The different perspectives presented through different sets of window designs or long corridors, or choices of plantings in the garden, would create that certain allure or subtle poetic persona of the occupant of that space.
I found that in Dream of the Red Chamber, author Cao Xueqin employed similar strategies. When BaoYue and DaiYue left their celestial dwellings for a lifetime in the earthbound human world, they entered a malevolent dream, into a spiritually empty and deserted wasteland. Within the somber grey blue palette of this disheartening dream there would be a touch of gorgeous glamour and elegance, a reminder of their former celestial selves. Deep within Cao’s sea of memory were the drop-by-drop details of all events in the book.
Everyone responds to Dream with a dream of his own. For me, the novel is primarily a dream of sorrow, not only for its tragic (and, therefore to the Chinese mind, incomplete) ending; but also for its tugging at the Chinese yearning for a spiritual anchor. The beauty that Cao has created in Dream is that of the dying, or the already dead, kind. It is heavy in color symbolism. Such a concept of beauty would be impossible to express through traditional means. It would not be sufficient to create the emptiness I felt. The color palette suggested in Dream had evoked a strong emotion in me. In addition, during his lifetime, Cao had created a famous collection of kites. They were full of vibrant colors that have already entered the mainstream consciousness. In the novel reality and illusion are always side-by-side. In many Qing Dynasty paintings DaiYue was always portrayed as an elegant but frail beauty, full of a fervent sense of mystery but yet painted in a color palette of the wounded and dying.
During the early creative phase of the Dream TV series, the historical/traditional and the contemporary perspectives often seemed like separate and opposing entities. How to unite them and, at the same time, deepen the audience’s impressions of the characters of the story, particularly the Twelve Beauties of Jingling who often appeared together, became a central moving force. In uniting their commonalities with their distinctiveness, I began with their complementary color palettes in traditional Chinese paintings, but moved to substitute those colors with contemporary ones. To showcase the vitality in the young characters, I experimented with placing contemporary artistic expressions within the framework of traditional Chinese sensitivities. The result was a new, illusory style of beauty, packed with Chinese poetic sensitivities. It could change what it would become, or modulate the pace of the story telling, or inform the actors’ movements and portrayals. A new style of expression and communication in theatre had thus been created. No matter how the stage has been constructed or how the sets have been positioned, ultimately it is how to change/fill the remaining empty space, how to create a new possibility or a new framework for life’s many robust changes, that will enable the audience to register and arrive at an illusory sense of beauty.
For the iconic scenes in Dream, such as DaiYu burying fallen petals, I felt that to create it totally in the present would lead to a loss of the spiritual dimension of the scene. This scene was really a dreamscape, full of Chinese imageries. Cao Xueqin was not really after reality in such cases. He was really mourning the loss of innocence, coupled with a wry dose of self-deprecation.
Dream is a very complex novel, one in which reality and illusion are often woven together. The dreamscapes and practical everyday living are also intertwined. For example, Cao Xueqin left the time period of when Dream took place intentionally vague. It may have been the Ming Dynasty; but many details that he described were distinctly from the Qing Dynasty. I tried to follow suite: some of the cuttings of my costumes were definitively historical/traditional; but I then coupled them with contemporary designs and construction, hoping thereby to deminish customary expectations and increase instead what costume designs could contribute to the vagueness and illusory style that was part of the fundamental premise of the novel.
In creating individual styles and appearances for all the principal characters in Dream, I gave everyone an outward opulence coupled with a hidden darkness or frostiness. In employing various traditional construction methods and contemporary workmanship, I worked hard to give each principal his or her own distinct persona. In the process, I found that my individualized costumes frequently led the actors/actresses to search for new dimensions that in the end added inner radiance and strengths to their portrayals. As they dressed for their roles, the actors/actresses would feel a change coming over them. The many contemporary design details that I had built into the Beijing opera costumes had given them a new freedom to express themselves and to further their emotional identification with their characters. In our current 21st century, with audience appreciation and artistic standards rapidly evolving in China, these interactive and individualistic responses of the actors and audiences are what motivate me in my work.
When I was invited by the San Francisco Opera to be the set/costume designer for its new 2016 world premiere production of Dream, I re-visited Cao Xueqin’s dream world. For me, how to meld Chinese emotional sensitivities with the western style music of the new opera was of paramount concern to me and represented a test for my philosophy of A New Orientalism. How to mobilize the original Chinese germ of this novel and bring about the multiple evolutions of the characters and arrive at a new language that would be on par with the music became the challenge. In my mind, there had only been one such successful undertaking in the U.S., that of the presentation of the Peony Pavilion at Lincoln Center in 1999.
Fortunately I had had several experiences of working in opera and was also familiar with western music. Acknowledging the opulence inherent in opera, I began by recalibrating the intensities of my color assignments to the principal characters in the TV series. I gave pale green to DaiYu, maroon to BaoYue, and beige/white to BaoChai. Grandma Jia and her household would revolve around the earth tones, with touches of red and gold to tie them together.
The monk and the servants would wear grey, while Princess Jia would wear the traditional imperial gold color. These three distinct palettes worked well to create distinct spaces on stage, delineating the three different casts of characters. At the same time, these palettes also succeeded in merging together to create a rich tapestry of dream-like mysticism. Inspired by Cao Xueqin’s interest and accomplishments in building kites, I had built into many of the costumes a feeling of being poised to take flight. Another important constituent was the impression of translucence I imparted to the costumes by overlaying hidden colors with half-transparent fabrics. Illuminated by the vast array of subtle but ever-changing colorful stage lights, these costumes gently and quietly led the audience into the dream world of illusion on stage.
For the sets on stage I designed a moveable installation of six large and colorful, translucent panels. When first seen they represented the solid and prosperous Grand Prospect Garden. Gradually however, fleeting and increasingly ominous shadows began to appear on these panels, created by constantly changing colors and directions of the stage lights, and indicating that this Garden was but an illusion. Its shaky existence was further corroborated by the large ever-changing backdrops and awakened in the audience a strange sense of foreboding. As the sky in the backdrops darkened the audience became engulfed in the story, the metaphysical having now taken over the physical reality. Everything had become illusory; both the opulent scene and chilling reality had given way.
On set designs for individual scenes, I had assigned both bamboo and water to DaiYue. From her arrival on water at the beginning, to her residence in the bamboo grove, to her ending by drowning, she was trapped in these symbols. Throughout the opera they amplified the changing, and mostly downward, spiral of her fortunes and emotions. In traditional Chinese thinking, water is usually associated with the yin, rather than the yang, and is also frequently associated with death. DaiYue possessed that alluring, ethereal, illusive and yet unforgettable, mystical beauty that came from the quiet sadness and helpless yearnings of a traditional Chinese young woman. Water and bamboo helped to complete that persona. A corresponding example of such beauty in the west would be the white swan in the ballet Swan Lake.
In studying traditional Chinese colors, I found that red was often juxtaposed with black, much like blood being spilled on the earth. This was one of the germs of early Chinese culture. Later on green was introduced as a counterpoint to red. On many ancient utensils and wall paintings, the two colors became complementary to each other, one strong and one weak, or one real and one illusory. Together they have come to signify the traditional sense of balance or parallelism that is so central to Chinese thought.
For the many complex dilemmas in Dream, I built on these two traditionally opposing and yet complementary colors of red and green, in order to create a perception of dilemmas as situations that were mutually reflective, and to establish a Chinese ethos at the same time. Within this ethos, western-style opera, with its frequently changing rhythms and tempi, would then have room to stretch and develop. All actions that took place were then accompanied by an ever-changing color landscape, one that was always anchored by BaoYue’s maroon red. At the end all color was stripped away, with nothing but shadows remaining. The music by then had arrived at a stately tempo. The color evolution was complete.
Throughout the opera, I tried to convey the idea of translucence through both costumes and sets. Through shadows created in solid environments, or strong colors coupled with vague overtones, I tried to bring the audience, not longer limited by their Chinese or western heritage, to the dream world where Dream of the Red Chamber took place. In different scenes, I alternated placing the historical or the contemporary center stage. But I always relied on a historical foundation. In extending this foundation to heretofore-unchartered territory, I hoped to have created Cao XueQin’s dream world, one that is half real and half illusory. I hoped that in my costumes and sets I had created a new way to express Chinese traditionalism, a contemporary Orientalism that conveys a certain Chinese sensitivity, duality, and philosophy.
During my search for a new Chinese perspective and in my interactions with the west, I have found that the entire world seems to be on a search for renewed artistic identities. Going forward, I know that there will be many new possibilities of exchanges of ideas, resulting in many new syntheses of directions and assimilations. I eagerly look forward to being part of this exciting east and west artistic exchange, and to finding a new balance and parallelism, rooted in the Chinese ethos while traversing the western poetic landscape. I stand ready to embrace new dialogues and communicating with the world.