CHENNAI: People who call me on my mobile often ask if I am in town. With good reason: I have been spending more time in airports. Performances and conferences are a major reason for my frequent absence from my hometown, and a certain ‘monkey’ has caught me by his tail. I am speaking of Shun Wu Kong, the impish Monkey King of China. This protagonist of the Chinese epic Journey to the West is a 16th-century travelogue that, to the Chinese, is as beloved as our Ramayana. Think Hanuman with loads more attitude and cheekiness! This historical account of a monkey’s journey from China to India (hence the word “west” in the title) is replete with anecdotes, humorous incidents and fascinating upakathas (a story within a story) that is a gripping parable for all times.
I was not very aware of this story until New York-based myth-teller Diane Wolkstein pulled me into this project after watching me dance Seven Graces at the Joyce SoHo Dance Space in 2007. A gentle woman with luminous eyes, Diane and I had met in Chennai the year before and became fast friends immediately.
Author of more than 20 books, Wolkstein has been fascinated with the story of the Monkey King and was waiting for a partner to bring it to the stage. Always ready to jump off a cliff without a parachute in life and art, I said, “Yes”, not thinking of the time and energy this collaboration would eventually demand of me.
After more than two years of several rehearsal sessions and intense improvisations under the watchful eyes of NYU theatre director Richard Armstrong and Qui Gong master Sat Hon, a skeleton version of the first section of the epic is ready for a public showing. La Guardia College of Arts in New York will host our rehearsal and preparation for this event for which I have lines to memorize, movements to rehearse and a delightful range of strange vo c a l sounds to perform.
This is far, far tougher than dancing! The best part for me is the lack of any pressure to look beautiful or act like a Goddess. Whew! After several years of doing solo work, I am making my own journey to the west-on stage with a master storyteller and a certain mercurial monkey!