love Kung Fu, yet you could fit all my physical experience of
it in one Chinese boot. However it has been my privilege, for
almost twenty years, to watch it.
of that time has been spent behind a camera. The nice thing about
a lens is that it focuses. It has taught me what to look for in
the practitioner, the essence of the move or the performance.
Initially, sitting on the sidelines, I paid attention to the separate
parts of the static body: feet, hands, shoulders, head, etc. If
you watch much kung fu, you dont need more than your eyes
to tell you where the performers tension lies. In the worst
cases, you see the hunched shoulders, the locked elbows, knees,
or wrists, the thrust chin. But what are you seeing in the better
cases? Its not just the correction of the above tensions.
It is the involvement of the waist. When the waist engages, the
separate parts now work together. The tip of the left willow palm
talks to the toe of the right foot in its bow stance. The shoulders,
relaxed, allow the two extended arms to become one long arm connected
across the back. And in every posture you see, also, the mind.
with a still camera makes you very sensitive to movement. After
observing the body I next look for the qualities, such as timing,
fluidity, familiarity, etc. One of my favorite performances was
by an 80 year-old man in China, wielding a Kwan knife. While he
was not as "beautiful" as the young, springy wushuist
who preceded him, his movements were some of the most graceful
Id ever seen. His obvious familiarity with his weapon enabled
him to move that heavy kwan as though he were cutting the air
with his own arm. His waist guided each step and seemed, also,
to support his limbs in their complicated maneuvers. His timing
was unhurried, and each move poured into the next like water.
He made no attempts at fancy stances, his footwork almost casual,
yet each bow stance was perfect, each cat precise. The majority
of my spectating is done, not at tournaments, but at schools.
I watch students from twenty to seventy years old practice their
forms and basics in small classes. Although most of the students
have less experience than the masters at the demonstrations,
they are fascinating to observe.
can sometimes see the seeds that will grow into great art, and
its not just the talent that shines, but work and attitude.
A student who looks forward to the opportunity of a new exercise,
the work of a new form, is a student who moves more freely with
less tension, a student who is not bounded by the daily restrictions
that may inhabit the rest of his life. In a funny way, watching
a student like this is like seeing the physical manifestation
of his trustnot just in himself, but in his teacher and
in his art. Its a willingness to push past his own expectationsto
surprise himselfand from this grows engagement: of the limbs,
of the waist, of the mind.
ultimately, is what satisfies in a fine performance. Talent is
not as rare as this attitude which, along with hours and hours
of work, is at the foundation of fluid movement, expert timing,
even strength and endurance. When you see a performance that takes
your breath away, part of the excitement is sensing the lingering
presence of the obstacles overcome, alongside the polished product.
Thats why, for me, an old man with a heavy kwan is a hundred
times more interesting than a young wushuist with her paper thin
sword, no matter how quickly she whips and twirls it.
I raise my camera and focus. If I am luckyif the martial
artist is goodI will be able to find that holographic spot
which contains the "energy" of the move. I shoot, then
lower my camera, and watch, and watch, and watch.
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