Gunnison 1918…

Some readers may recognize this article from Daveno Historica – a blog I set up during the COVID-19 pandemic to record my family and personal histories. I am planning to close that blog by Spring 2023. Posts for Gunnison and the Sportsmen’s Hotel are moving here.  I plan to preserve the family histories and personal memoirs in bound format under the title: “The Matriarch Diaries” sometime in the next 5 years.

March 11, 2020 was a tumultuous day here in Seattle, WA, the nation’s epicenter for COVID19. At 9:30 AM Pacific time, the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus to be a global pandemic. At 11 AM, Governor Inslee took steps towards viral containment in three counties in Washington State by banning groups of more than 250 people from assembling; encouraging schools to develop contingency plans; reminding people to wash their hands and practice social distancing. Those of us over the age of 60 or with underlying medical conditions are following recommendations to hunker down at home. Wish us luck…

History is full of stories about cities that sequestered themselves during times of plague. In recent history, one of those cities was Gunnison, Colorado, which “declared a quarantine against all the world” during the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918.

My grandmother’s family lived in Gunnison – my grandmother recounts having smallpox there in 1917. The following year, the family moved to nearby Jack’s Cabin, (which her notes record as Jack’O Cabin Valley). I don’t know if the intention was to protect the family by moving to an isolated area in the county, or if her father was simply following an offer of work on Jim Spann’s farm. My grandmother was 10 years old and may not have even been aware of the pandemic, in spite of the Spann family being quarantined after they visited Denver for Thanksgiving in November 1918. According to the Gunnison County Times, Mrs. Laurel Spann [possibly Bill’s wife] later succumbed, and is thought to be the first flu-related death in Gunnison County that year.

My grandmother, Mildred Carpenter, and Bill Spann at his farm in Jack Cabin Valley, circa 1918-20
(Photo from my family archives)

Gunnison sat at a highway junction and train stop between Denver and other major Colorado cities, which put them at heightened risk [not unlike Seattle, WA being a major port for both air and sea travel]. At a time when many nearby towns suffered consequences through their inaction, Gunnison’s early containment measures via “protective sequestration” resulted in zero deaths during the first wave of the pandemic. The Guardian News, US edition, published an excellent story which you can read here.

Photo credit: The Guardian News, US edition

This article from the Gunnison Country Times recounts that the pandemic hit the US in January 1918, and by October there were 78 deaths in Denver, and 9,000 reported cases throughout Colorado. On October 18th, Gunnison city officials closed schools and churches, and banned both public and private gatherings. On November 1st, they quarantined the entire town, erecting barricades on roads, sequestering visitors, and arresting violators for the next four months. Nearby towns took similar actions but not soon enough. The town of Silverton – thinking it had no cases – took no action at all, and between October – December 1918, suffered 125 deaths and 833 reported cases.

A train and passengers, just east of Gunnison, CO. Photo credit: Gunnison Country Times

As a result of Gunnison’s isolation, deaths and illnesses were minimal and occurred only after a second wave of flu hit, after city officials lifted the quarantine in mid -February 1919. That action resulted in 58 reported cases and only a handful of deaths. Statewide, nearly 8,000 people died out of 49,000 reported cases.

Gunnison served as partial inspiration for the novel The Last Town on Earth” by Thomas Mullen, which coincidentally, is set in my home state of Washington.

My grandmother and her family survived the pandemic, and remained at Jacks Cabin until about 1924, when they moved back to Gunnison so she and her sister could attend high school.

Mildred and Nella Carpenter, from my family archives

A Timeout …

I’m taking a timeout from hatmaking as I upgrade my technology and web presence.

Here I am with my first Smartphone (which is smarter than me so I’m trying to figure it out), which will allow me to post to Instagram (which I’m also trying to figure out), and Reddit (which is yet another thing I’m trying to figure out). So. Much. Figuring Out To Do…

Instagram will replace Pinterest, which will remain as an archive. Reddit already gives me more traffic than Twitter, although my feed there is not yet hat-oriented – I’m working on that… Find my own version of Everything Everywhere All At Once on my newly revised Contacts Page.

It’s a virtual triumvirate of upgrades, filled with rabbit holes. But Granada ShopCat reached out as if to say: “It’s OK Mom, you’ll find your way eventually.”

A Tribute to the ShopCats

I set creative work aside for the last little while, to spend time with and care for Toledo, my Black ShopCat. His brother Granada and I said goodbye to him last week.

Toledo and his brother were named after cities I had visited in Spain. Toledo was my doorbell and my protector. He was fascinated by many things, including my ruler and rotary cutter which nearly cost him toes on more than one occasion. He was as inquisitive as any cat I’ve ever owned. He joins Odin, his ancestor ShopCat, as one of the immortal felines on the other side of the Rainbow Bridge.

Make a Statement!

At the turn of 2022 I decided to try my hand at creating art pieces that are not hats. Now you can “Make A Statement” with a piece or two from my new collection, which will range from jewelry to home furnishings, to wearables, perhaps even puppets!

Here are the Statement Pieces I have created so far. The Tea and Coffee Cozies are lined with insulated bags that my groceries are delivered in. All pieces are made from recycled materials and items from my decades-old stash of miscellany. These one-of-a-kinds are now available in my online store under the #StatementPieces tag:

Works “other than hats” are not a new thing for me. The photos below show examples of previous custom works. Some of you may recognize the cushions as knock-offs from my hat designs. The embellished clothing at the bottom of this gallery were from a project I delivered last year.

Make your own Statement with something uniquely handcrafted!

Art is Love : )

A Hatter’s Year: 2021 …

Simply a photo essay of the projects I completed this year. Not all projects were hats…

Sensing a Trend …

“I see a red door and I want it painted black…”

from “Paint it Black” by the Rolling Stones

Black and red, black and grey, black on black. It’s been a trend this year. When customers aren’t ordering blacks and reds, I’m gravitating to that color combination by choice or by habit.

So, here’s a collection of my Gothic color palette from the past few months. Those shown with masks are custom orders that have been shipped. Others are on their way to holiday art shows at Brookfield Gallery, Peters Valley Gallery, and Uncommon Threads — a new (for me) show where you will find me in the Boutique Artist listings.

If you see something here that you might like, give me a shout. I can probably make something similar for you, black and red optional : ) As a reminder, nearly everything you see here has been made from rescued textiles and found objects, with the exception of the two black-on-black hats, whose materials were supplied by my patrons in order to meet their exact specifications.

The One Monkey Show…

You may remember me from certain medieval societies as Lao Tao-sheng – “Old One, Born to Tell Tales.”

Once upon a time I presented a “One Monkey Show” – a seven hour solo presentation of the first seven stories from “The Journey to the West” at a medieval event called Ducal War, at a park somewhere in Oregon, on a weekend in August in either 1983 or 1985, depending on how you remember time…

These are photos from that original show, forwarded to me by Rich Edwards. It was just over 100 degrees in the park that day, and for the first half of the show, I was wearing every layer that you see here. I remember taking off the brown coat to expose the leather scale costume armor, and just standing for a minute with my arms extended, waiting to cool down…

A few months after presenting this work, I was invited by a couple of friends to recreate my performance for public access TV in Longview. We spent an afternoon taping the first half of the show, but I never returned to tape the second half. As far as I knew, the first set of tapes never aired, and after a few years I had forgotten entirely about that day. Life events prompted me to retire from performing in 1993.

And then, on June 1, 2021, a package arrived in the mail:

Hi Heather,

After watching your interview with The Sisters [a regular feature on Facebook], I was surprised to hear that there were no other films of your storytelling performances. I decided it was past time to see if I could get what I had of the Monkey Tales into readily viewable form. When KJTV converted to digital, Gary saw they were disposing of old VCR tapes. He grabbed what he could find of the tapes from our Monkey sessions and got them to Leslie and I. There was one mix tape that was aired, so it had wear, as well as original camera tapes. I asked Noah if he could use his contacts and film knowledge to save these and put them into a form that will last better.

He had them transferred to digital and did some cleanup…You can tell that there is some age involved, and that we were rookies as far as filming a performance is concerned. Noah did a great job of cleaning up the small technical issues…I wanted to make sure you had copies of some of the fantastic work you did and could let others see a sample of it…

I hope this brings you joy.

Max Slape (Master Cormac of Caermont)

The discovery of these tapes gave me the impetus to shake the dust from the notes I had collected while preparing these stories, which culminated in the solo show which took about a year and a half to prepare. You can read that six-part series here.

Here are a couple of teasers, courtesy of film editor guru, Noah Hale:

And as they say, “without further ado”

I invite you to my August Phoenix Rising Event

“The Tales of Monkey” – as performed by Heather Daveno

Live Streamed from YouTube

and simulcast on The Sisters Interview on Facebook

starting at 2 PM on Sunday, August 22, 2021

Click on the YouTubes below, and thank you for helping me celebrate this premier!

[Heather] in the persona of Lao Tao-sheng, is a performing artist specializing in the authentic re-creation of the fold tales of medieval China and Mongolia. Years of study and personal training have developed Lao into a historically accurate example of the street storyteller who was the forerunner of the modern day Peking Opera.

Of her repertoire, the Tales of the Monkey King are the most well known and most often requested. The tales are taken from a classic entitled “Journey to the West,” an allegory based on the travels of a 6th century monk. During the performing of these tales, Lao plays many characters — dragons, ogres, generals, patriarchs — and most famously, the Monkey King. Wielding his iron staff, riding upon magic clouds, he wreaks havoc and defies those who would doubt his importance…

“…[She] brings Monkey to life with an authentic Chinese costume, makeup, a big fancy fan and her voice. With a few props and a painted backdrop, [she] plays all the parts. She undulates like a curtain of water, chatters like a passel of monkeys and parries with a ‘golden’ spear.

But mostly she’s the Stone Monkey…

The Daily News – Longview, Washington

The Glastonbury Gowns…

It is to this Avalon of the Heart, the pilgrims still go. Some in bands, knowing what they seek. Some alone, with the staff of vision in their hands, awaiting what will come to meet them on this holy ground.

None will go away as they came…

In November 2019, my friend Kate went on pilgrimage to Glastonbury. One of the things she took with her was a set of Viking-inspired wedding clothes I was commissioned to make for her daughter and fiance some twenty years earlier. On the third day of this pilgrimage, an offering was made at the Goddess Temple, and accepted. “They were agog at the clothes,” Kate told me. “They’ll use them to officiate at weddings, and for guided winter walks on the Tor. And they will be used as loaner finery for brides without means. The silk underdress with the sleeveless coat is wonderfully elegant and easy to wear. The cloak will probably hang as a backdrop in the wedding chapel, unless the Winters turn much colder.”

The wedding clothes were designed by Pat, based on 9th century Viking designs. The central feature was his interpretation of the “Kissing Couple,” a Viking relic from the Aska burial mound in Stockholm. On her coat, Pat envisioned the Kissing Couple supported by a Tree of Life, with spirals repeating on the facings of her coat, the hem of her Viking apron, and the sleeves of her gown.

I think Laura and I had about eight months to pull everything together. Laura worked on the red apron while I embellished the bride’s white silk gown, and made her sleeveless coat. I worked an appliqué chalice into the hem of her coat to tie it in with her father’s clothing. Because the silk of her gown was very fine, I opted for paint rather than embroidery for the scrollwork on the bodice, and at the edges of the sleeves so it would be double-sided. The rest of the work was wool appliqué with perl cotton detailing; the Tree of Life was gold and silver cord, held down with couching.

For the groom, I made a rectangular coat with the Kissing Couple covering most of the back, and a border of 9th century Norse knotwork with silver interlacing at the bottom. I duplicated the knotwork on the hem of his wool tunic.

Dublin, the father of the bride, wore tunics I had made for him earlier. The blue linen had gryphons in dimensional appliqué that were detailed with hand dyed yarns, jewels and beads. The gryphons supported a chalice on the front and a triskelion on the back. The sleeves and neckline were predominantly gold paint with some embroidery for texture. His white linen under tunic was embroidered at hem, cuff and neck with designs that complimented the blue tunic. I designed the pair so they could be worn together, or as stand alone garments.

But I didn’t get anything made for Kate…

Another 20 years pass. Kate goes to Glastonbury and plans to go to Greece the following year. I offered to make her a dress for Greece. At that point, Mea and Anni devise a cunning plan. Mea is getting married in the spring, and wants Kate to officiate, and wants to gift her with the dress. Anni wants to co-conspire. We decide that instead of a dress, it should be a small wardrobe of interchangeable pieces. And so, plans hatched, I am commissioned for the work, and the Glastonbury Gown Project begins.

November 2019The Concept

Mea, Anni, and I start a series of long conversations on Facebook while Kate is in Glastonbury. We decide that Kate’s wardrobe should mirror her daughter’s wedding clothes which she has just donated there. I suggest a linen kirtle with full gussets, a keyhole neckline, and straight sleeves as Kate has requested for her gown for Greece. Perhaps with a large hood like the gowns I was seeing in Glastonbury. A sleeveless coat with similar design elements to Sarah’s. We start plotting on how to get Kate’s measurements.

I research Gaelic dyes and come up with a list of about ten colors which includes green, purple, claret, orange and yellow. Mea and Anni share notes on appropriate stones for a Pict – garnets, amethyst, glass. Dublin’s personal colors were green, black and white. so to honor him, I suggest green for Kate’s kirtle. For accent colors, we rule out orange and yellow because those are the colors of Dublin’s “Evil Twin Jagar” and inviting the spirit of Jagar would be bad : ) But I cannot source a suitable green linen, so I suggest purple instead – the color a widow wears after her year of black. I offer a redesign in purple with green facings and black embroidery.

I am following Kate’s Glastonbury journal and start collecting designs to incorporate into this project. One of the elements I see at the Chalice Well is two interlocking rings entwined with vines. In sacred geometry, this double ring is called a vesica piscis, a symbol of harmonic proportions, the visible and invisible worlds interlocked, and a source of strength and power. I sketch a preliminary design of a hooded coat that incorporates this symbol supported by a Tree of Life with its roots in a chalice, and a purple kirtle, cut short in front to expose the painted hem of a sleeveless chemise.

I use the pattern pieces from Sarah’s coat to calculate yardage for Kate’s kirtle. I send linen swatches to Anni so she can match the weight and weave, and she takes on the linen procurement. Anni is also buying pounds of jet for me to use as the predominate stone.

December 2019 – The First Redesign

I start going back and forth on adding the hood to the gown instead of the coat. Should it be a sleeveless coat? Or box sleeves? Or half sleeves to show off the kirtle? So many decisions… I revise my quote for the kirtle and a heavily embellished coat and submit it for payment. The chemise will be my gift.

Anni wins the auction for the jets and sends me photos. I start to play with their placement on a paper pattern for the vesica. I pick through the stones left over from Anni’s last hat order and add those to the project pile.

Several yards of unbleached cotton in a nubby gauze weave arrives from another friend who is thinning out her sewing stash. It’s perfect for the chemise. Yay!

January 2020 – Taking Her Measure

Kate comes to Seattle for Chinese New Year, and we talk about ‘her gown for Greece.” I take her measurements and verify her preferences for necklines and sleeves. When she pops into the shower, I grab the fleece dress that she says is her ultimate favorite, make a sketch of it and take additional measurements. My timeline is “a gown” for an event that Kate plans to go to in May, with the rest deliverable by Mea’s wedding in September. Kate will have the full ensemble for her trip to Greece in October.

February 2020 – The Next Redesign

Kate cancels her plans for May. Postponement gives me time to redesign. I’m not happy with the profile, so I start to design tippets, a 14th century feature which would echo the profile of the angel-wing sleeves from Sarah’s gown. I could load them with jet and attach them with ties to bands already sewn to the upper arm of the kirtle, so they could detach for laundering the gown. But my design is not gelling.

Anni has procured the proper weight of linen for the kirtle and is dying it purple today.

March 11, 2020 – Project Interrupted

The pandemic lockdown begins. My galleries close and my hat business comes to a screeching halt. I put the Glastonbury Gown Project aside and join the Masks4Millions Project, for which I would ultimately make 800 masks between now and next spring.

May 2020 – The Chemise

Mea’s wedding is now postponed. With every postponement I redesign the purple gown. Now it will have shorter but wider sleeves which will allow more space for embroidery and beadwork. I discard the tippets as being too fussy, and the facings as being unnecessary. The chemise will now need sleeves.

I test ivy patterns in both green and blue. Blue wins my patron’s vote for the chemise, which I paint over the Memorial Day weekend. I contemplate the neckline for the chemise, and decide to replenish my vodka before proceeding…

June 1, 2020 A Brave Day

I have a brave day and cut and paint the neckline on the chemise. And I didn’t even eff it up! I add spirals to the top of the gores because I did eff those up, to hide the mismatched points and to reinforce that stress point. The chemise is now finished.

The purple linen has arrived from Anni. I cut out the gown and embroider the first sleeve with black continuous spirals, set with amethysts and jets. I’m now thinking the hood should be a separate detachable piece. The first rendition of the hood begins but I abandon it by the end of the month. I also go back and forth on embroidering the hem, but ultimately the hem wins, sans the beads.

September-October 2020

I put the dress aside to work on hat commissions, and couture masks for a customer giveaway to celebrate the 20th anniversary of my hat business.

December 2020 – On to Phase 3

I finish the purple gown, and mail it and the chemise to Kate, as a Winter Solstice gift from Mea and Anni.

Work begins on the grey coat, whose design would morph considerably from my original sketch. I am running out of time and forgo the embroidered scrollwork on the outer facings. I choose instead, a beautiful piece of purple-green-gold silk to use as inner facings, which would flash color as she walked.

Mea, Anni and I deliberate on the hood, and whether it should be detachable or not. We discuss the chalice, which I ultimately cut from a piece of moss-green suede. I plan to cover the back of the coat with silver spirals like I did on Sarah’s coat, to tie the vesica and the chalice together. But the “Tree of Life” would not be symmetrical like Sarah’s, and I would not repeat the interlaced center trunk that supported the Kissing Couple, because that’s a thing I only wanted to do once.

The winter holidays come and go, and at the turn of the year I develop one of the worst creative blocks I have ever had, which would last for weeks…

March-April 2021 – The Vesica

I force myself to work on hats for commissions and an upcoming show. I wrap up the Mask4Millions project and turn my attention to the vesica. I cut it from a piece of purple suede and place the larger jet pieces. I abandon my plan to weave the strands of tiny jet beads into knotwork, in favor of black leather leaves which will be more dynamic and less fraying on my nerves. I incorporate those strands of jets as veining for the leaves, and braid perl cotton for the stems.

May 2021 – The Chalice and the Tree of Life

The chalice is reworked a few times before I find a broken bracelet in Anni’s shipment of jets that perfectly fits along its brim. Once the vesica and the chalice are stitched in place, work on the Tree of Life begins. I freehand the scrollwork onto the wool with tailor’s chalk and, in a sudden bolt of foresight, photograph it. I would end up retracing the scrollwork every 15 minutes when the chalk wore off, using the photo as my guide. I finish the back of the coat a week later, at midnight.

The front panels have become the new stumbling block. I start to simplify the design and eliminate the swans and some other design elements. The coat goes back onto the hangar for the next few weeks.

June 2021 – The Stole

I turn to the hood, now a separate piece entirely, which now evolves into a stole. The sand-washed silk isn’t working, so I resort to linen, with a cut velvet scarf across the top, which I edge with strings of jet along the back, and braid and jets along the front. I do my best to repair the beaded fringe on the scarf, and play with ornamentation for the next day or two before settling on a simple jet tassel for the back, and jets for the front, set against metal thread appliqués that I brought home from the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul a few years back. I fold the front edge over and over until it stiffens enough to hold its shape. A pair of buttons and an elastic hair tie form the closure for the front.

July 2021 – Finishing Details

My new deadline is August 8. I figure out the scrollwork for the front panels, and tackle the lining. Five lengths of non-workable yardage later, I wonder if it’s me or the project that is actually in charge.

My hands finally land on a brocade curtain that works. I center the design on the back panel so the coat will look pretty on the hangar. I cut a facing from the flashy gold and purple silk, which self destructs under an iron. Argh! I return to my fabric stacks and locate a piece of black pique. It is highly textured and “Needs No Embellishment,” I say to myself, as I cut out more leather leaves for embellishment.

I spend the next few days applying various trims to the inside of the facings, and little details here and there, until the lily was as gilded as the calendar would allow. I finish the coat by the end of the month.

August 8, 2021

The Glastonbury Gown Project is complete and hand delivered to its new home. A chalice filled, a legacy honored, and a deserving friend, newly attired, makes ready to rule her New World…

Drama in China: The Painted Face….

This is Part VI of a series of articles that is part theater history, part personal retrospect, from a time long ago when I was known in medieval society as Lao Tao-sheng – “Old One, Born to Tell Tales.” My own story started with performances of Waley’s “Monkey” at medieval themed feasts, and culminated in a “One Monkey Show” – a solo presentation of the first seven stories from “The Journey to the West” over the course of seven hours, one August day circa 1983-85 (memory fails as to the exact date). A synopsis of my resume is included in Part I of this series. Text in bold indicate research notes that I applied to my performances. My personal comments are in italics where I need to differentiate them from my research.

You will recall from the previous segment that costume was specific to the character rather than the play. Makeup followed the same rules though face paint was used sparingly until the 15th century, at which point it became codified for the Peking (now Beijing) opera.

In the earliest periods, masks were used (possibly stemming from those worn by monks during religious rituals). Warrior-roles might have used wooden masks, beasts and demons might use paper ones. Masks were ‘in harmony’ with the whole character and helped define the actor’s role. Masks followed the same system of color symbolism as the costume, and always matched what the actor was wearing. Some masks emphasized features or expressions of a specific role, others transformed the actor’s face into a symbol, like a cloud to signify ‘the god of the clouds’, or a beast or demon.

Show at left is one of my earliest performances of the Monkey King. I was wearing mostly Tibetan clothing at the time, and a stylized mask instead of face paint.

Makeup was used sparingly in early medieval drama. (I assume that theater makeup evolved from the cosmetics used by women of the period, descriptions of which follow.) Face powder was made from chalk or ground rice (dating to 770-476 BCE) or lead. Rouge was made from extracting the juice from red and blue flowers and mixing it with rice powder (Shang Dynasty). Lips were colored with vermillion mixed with mineral wax and animal fat. Eyebrows were darkened with sticks of charcoal made from willow tree, or dai – a blue mineral that was ground to a powder and mixed with water.

During the T’ang Dynasty, the glittery mendhi-style accent in the middle of the forehead may have been a ‘huadian’ made from foil paper, fish scale or dragonfly wings.

Once face paint gained more common usage for Chinese theater (I believe closer to the 16th-17th centuries), it also became exaggerated and very stylized. Eyebrows were the first part of an actor’s face that were enhanced. Rising to a slant at the outer end gave the impression of firmness, courage and determination. Later on, face paint progressed to to use around the eyes, nostrils and the corners of the mouth.

  • Simple Face used one color predominated and only the eyebrows were augmented.
  • Old Face was painted in grey or a sickly pink, with only the eyebrows augmented, with the ends being drawn down at the temples.
  • Shattered Face was used to denote an evil man, bandit, traitor or someone who was injured. It consisted of colored curves, lines and spirals, with the nose or an eye distorted by an angle of painted lines.
  • Three Brick Mask was one of the oldest styles. A stripe was painted above the eyebrows and across the eyes to divide the face in half horizontally, and then another line was painted vertically down the nose and mouth. This style was made more complicated later by painting designs onto the plain colored backgrounds.
  • Scholars, ministers and young heroes had white faces with a touch of pink in the middle of the brow (which I think was an adaptation of women’s court makeup from the T’ang Dynasty).
  • Women’s roles used pale pink foundation, with peony pink on their cheeks and around their eyes, extending up to their brows. It was further stylized by high arched eyebrows and slanting corners to the eyes. (This style would become a favorite of mine for a few other ‘roles’.)

Color schemes

  • A white face with no other color could denote cruelty, or a dignified villain. A square or oblong painted in the center of the face denoted a comic who was cunning but not necessarily bad.
  • A solid black face could denote an evil person, or one who ruled by the iron law of state rather than by personal interest.
  • A combination of black and white denoted a warrior.
  • A red face denoted a hero, military commander, or other courageous man
  • Brown and purple were incorporated into the faces of educated officials and roles who possessed strength and courage but who could not always outwardly demonstrate it.
  • Blue could indicate a role that was uncultured, rough, or possibly cruel
  • Yellow or gold was often used to depict gods or supernatural characters
  • Green depicted devils and demons

I include beards here because I consider them part of makeup rather than costume. They hung on a wire supported by the actor’s ears and rested on the upper lip. They were never adhered to an actor’s face during the medieval period.

A waist-length beard was a sign of prosperity, wealth, courage and strength. Narrow whiskers hanging in three strands from both ears and the chin signified a married man. A thick, short beard indicated a rough, self-indulgent man.

Although I was presenting a 16th century text, I was doing so as a 13th century storyteller. I patterned my face paint after the Golden Monkey (Rhinopithecus roxellanae, shown below), with its blue face and long red hair, a now endangered species native to the mountain forests of Sichuan province, upon whom I surmised the fabled Monkey King might be based.

By this time in my storytelling career, I was gifted frequently with Monkey King and Chinese Opera related treasures. I even remember decorating a Christmas tree one year in miniature opera masks and trinkets of jade…

Resources I used in the writing of this chapter include:

  • The Classical Theatre of China by A.C. Scott, Greenwood Press Publishers, Westport, Connecticut, 1957
  • Chinese Theater by Kalvodova Si s-Vanis, Spring Books, London, 1957
  • China Daily, Cao Chen staff writer, April 21, 2018

There was on top of that very mountain an immortal stone, which measured thirty-six feet and five inches in height and twenty-four feet in circumference… Since the creation of the world, it had been nourished by the seeds of Heaven and Earth and by the essences of the sun and the moon, until, quickened by divine inspiration, it became pregnant and gave birth to a stone egg, which was transformed into a Stone Monkey…

Drama in China: Music and Dance…

This is Part V of a series of articles that is part theater history, part personal retrospect, from a time long ago when I was known in medieval society as Lao Tao-sheng – “Old One, Born to Tell Tales.” My own story started with performances of Waley’s “Monkey” at medieval themed feasts, and culminated in a “One Monkey Show” – a solo presentation of the first seven stories from “The Journey to the West” over the course of seven hours, one August day circa 1983-85 (memory fails as to the exact date). A synopsis of my resume is included in Part I of this series. Text in bold indicate research notes that I applied to my performances. My personal comments are in italics where I need to differentiate them from my research.

Although I did not incorporate music in most of my performances, I include this section because musicians and their instruments played a vital role in Chinese dramas since the earliest of times. Dance would also become an integral part of modern day Chinese opera, and would influence many of its classic movements.

Voice and Song

In European opera, voice and language are treated as an instrument. It is no different in Chinese theater. Spoken language of an ‘every day’ type marked the common characters such as servants and comic characters. Formal Chinese was used for narration, where every word needed to be emotionally distinct. Spoken passages were governed by rhythm and tempo, and pace was maintained by drawing out syllables without regard to conversational norms. Where there were arias, they were sung in verse. Songs and melodies were handed down for generations and were not rewritten for specific plays. A melody might just as easily express love as much as tragedy.

Songs in Northern dramas were accompanied by lute and other stringed instruments. They adopted a 7 tone scale that accompanied dialog that was based on every day speech. Overall vocals and instrumentals were vigorous and lively. In the South, a flute was the instrument of choice, lending soft and gentle tones on a 5 tone scale which accompanied dialog that has been described as “esoteric with scholarly illusions.”

The song that I open my One Monkey Show is text from “The Journey to the West” that (I think) I set to the melody of a Chinese folk song. For the second song, I used a pocket dictionary to translate the English back into Chinese, to see if the rhyme had been maintained. I was thrilled to discover that it had. I set that lyric to a folk song although I cannot remember the name of it, or its exact source. I believe it may have been a video I borrowed from the library, because I remember playing it over and over until I learned the tune.


Variety acts dating back to the Han Dynasty would continue for several centuries, and by the T’ang Dynasty would include storytelling, puppetry, and wrestling in addition to the early forms of song and dance dramas. Dance was so popular that the distinct forms have been documented through paintings and statuary of the period.

There is a well documented dance from dating to at least the T’ang Dynasty called the “Scarf Dance” which has been preserved in both folk and opera dances. The silk was a strip seven meters long, and at one point the dancer would flick it above the heads of the audience, where it floated while the dancer continued their dance before retrieving the silk. Another dance move that was highly documented was the pirouette, which was considered such a staple that the move was called “wuxuan” which translates to “to dance wheeling.”

Sabre dancers date back to the Han Dynasty and evolved from martial arts into components of some dance dramas. There were also forms of “martial” dance performed by groups of men portraying armies in combat. Flower Drum Dance dates back to the Song Dynasty and remains a popular dance in modern day China. Lion Dance dates back to the T’ang Dynasty, where it cleared the pathway of both physical people, and evil spirits, ahead of a statue of Buddha as it was carried through the streets during religious festivals.

During the T’ang Dynasty, song and dance would continue to meld and become a principal entertainment at court. Simple plot lines would be replaced by the more complex dramas written by poets and would lay the stage for traditional Chinese opera.

By the Yuan and Ming Dynasties, audiences started to demand art forms that showed the harshness of life as well as the poetic ideals of the previous dynasties. As the newly emerging opera forms continued to develop, song and dance continued to be incorporated as ways to further express the plot. Dance movements would become choreography and influence gestures and postures that would become codified in Beijing Opera.

The Instruments

Dance would not be viewed as a separate art form by the Ming Dynasty, but would become part of the training regimen for opera artists. That training would also include instruction in stringed instruments such as zither, pipa, tiqin and zianxi; as well as drums, pipes and other wind instruments. An understanding of music was considered imperative before an actor could learn the dances and acting roles.

In “The T’ang Emperor Ming Huang Tours the Palace on the Moon” …a clap of thinder and the black curtain is suddenl drawn back to reveal the round orbo of a moon, multi-coloured couds of dyed wool everywhere. In the middle sits the white rabbit grinding medicine in a mortar. Veiled in thin silk cloth, several lamps are lit inside as bright as the moon. The colour is bluish like early dawn. Cloth is strung here and there to form hills and caves, a magical realm – you forget it is a play…

Dance in Traditional Opera from “The History of Chinese Dance”

In Chinese dramas, gongs and cymbals would start the overture and signal the beginning of the play. An actor would introduce the play to the audience via a series of four-line stanzas – a thing that evolved from the street storytellers who always began their story with a short rhythm that outlined the coming story. The actor would introduce the most important characters, divulging their names and their stories. And then the play would begin.

Musicians were seated on stage in plain view of the audience, but to one side, so they could see the actors and follow their lead. Instruments such as drums, gongs and clappers provided rhythmic background.

During the play, trumpets heralded happy meetings, victories and good news. Songs were accompanied by flute (in the South) and lute (in the North). There were stringed instrument like a violin, held vertically against the knee. Plucked instruments included guitar. Lyric scenes were played to a background of “cloud” gong chimes. Drums signaled battle scenes and tragic turning points.

Post Script

My interest in Chinese performing arts continued long after I stopped performing in the 1990s. In 2002, Yo Yo Ma brought his “Silk Road Project” to Benaroya Hall in Seattle. The program was extensive and I only saw small portions of it, which unfortunately did not include any of the concerts. Ma brought together “an array of musicians from several countries to explore not only their traditional music, but also ideals for future collaborations.”

“…The transfer of such innovations as gunpowder…the printing press, silk…ceramic and lacquer crafts were only part of the story; musical instruments, forms and techniques, too, moved along the Silk Road. Lutes from India and Persia developed as close relatives; cymbals were introduced into China from India, and Chinese gongs journeyed to Europe..”

Materials I referenced for this segment include:

  • The Classical Theatre of China by A.C. Scott, Greenwood Press Publishers, Westport, Connecticut, 1957
  • Chinese Theater by Kalvodova Si s-Vanis, Spring Books, London, 1957
  • The History of Chinese Dance by Wang Kefen, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 1985
  • Asian Traditional Theater and Dance
  • “The Silk Road Project” by Melinda Bargreen, Seattle Times music critic, May 5, 2002