It’s no surprise that I first heard of playwright Xu Junrui because of “Only This Green”.
This is a truly outstanding dance production. When lead dancer Meng Qingyang and a group of top dancers performed the majestic and graceful green waist on the 2022 Spring Festival Gala, with the mountains and misty greenery in the background, I believe countless people, like me, held their breath in front of the screen.
I read the script for “Only This Green” on the recommendation of a theater-loving friend. It was more like an extremely beautiful prose poem, with a structure and form that differed greatly from the familiar script style. But strangely enough, it was exactly what I imagined a dance production to be like. I couldn’t think of any other form of writing that could convey such rich aesthetic meaning.
Later on, dance productions such as “Wing Chun” and “Giant Panda” became popular. How do you adapt these themes into dance productions? What is the playwright’s responsibility in solving problems and transforming text into scenes and body language? The questions kept piling up. Unable to resist any longer, I asked my friend Qi Guyue to arrange a solid chat with dance production playwright Xu Junrui to clear up my confusion.
【Highlights of this issue】
“Giant Panda”, field research, and problem-solving stories
Challenge! The narrative art of dance production playwrights
How to find the “light”? The “mini seminar” of “Wing Chun”
Transforming text into “body language”
The birth of “Only This Green” is a kind of “cultural self-awareness”
How to become a dance production playwright? Who knows
What’s the deal with the “modern person” in “Only This Green”?
The “love-hate relationship” between director and playwright
“I am that beam of light, shining on the stage”
The initial experience of being “weak, pitiful, and helpless” in creation
The pet of the Chinese teacher (free-range version)
“My works have never belonged to me.”
What is it like to be addicted to work and unable to break free?
What is the core of all creation?
If you could time travel, what moment would you most want to witness?
“The Story of ‘Panda’, Field Research, and Creative Problem-Solving”
Editor’s Note: Recently, the dance drama “Panda” was finally released, and we were pleasantly surprised to find that the theme of the work elevates this cute creature to the heights of nature and life. “Panda” is not just a concrete form here, but more like an anchor point. This is also reflected in “Only Green” and “Wing Chun”. We are curious about how you can always elevate these concrete and tangible “things” to a refreshing level. When you receive these materials, how do you go about solving the problem step by step?
Xu Junrui: That’s too much praise. It’s not always possible to reach this level. As long as the scriptwriter completes the problem-solving, it is already a major breakthrough in script creation. After receiving the materials, we enter a process of continuous exploration. Take “Panda” as an example. Our work begins in the vast universe of the ancient times, where life is ignorant and unconscious. You are constantly searching for that beam of light that may appear in the ancient times. I think this beginning is very similar to my experience in the process of creating dance dramas.
I was actually very resistant to the topic of pandas. Artistic director Chen Feihua has been encouraging me, saying that I should use my brain and not always think about the inherent image of pandas. Instead, I should think about the connection between them and our lives and the possibilities that exist between us.
So we went on a field trip. At the panda base in Chengdu, we saw many captive giant pandas, cute and happy. But we chose to take the risk of landslides and mudslides and entered the mountains during the rainy season, all the way to the place where pandas originated. At that time, there were many falling rocks, landslides, and collapses on the road. We stopped only when the guide said we could not go any further.
In the deep mountains of Baoxing, I suddenly felt that the whole world was quiet because the altitude was high, and the air was much cooler than in the city. We did not see any wild pandas. I should say that when we looked around, there was nothing but bamboo forests. Everything in the mountains was so quiet, and I suddenly felt a little scared. I couldn’t imagine what this place would be like at night. There were no lights, no human voices, and no modern facilities. Pandas live in such a place. Most of the world was like this millions of years ago. They can only rely on their sense of touch and smell, the most basic perception of life, and the moon rising at night to feel their existence and confirm the existence of life.
I think I’ve found a breakthrough. The real panda is a creature from 8 million years ago. It was wild and natural, not our pet. It was able to evolve and adapt to nature and coexist harmoniously with other life forms for millions of years, thanks to its strong vitality. While its contemporaries, such as the saber-toothed elephant and tiger, have long been extinct, the panda has survived to this day with its survival wisdom. “Panda” actually portrays the image of a wild panda, using its perspective to perceive the origin of life, its pursuit, dreams, honing, and instinct for survival, to depict individuals in the wilderness.
During my trip to Sichuan, I told the director that I think the giant panda is like a prototype of our Chinese civilization. When our ancient Chinese civilization first opened its eyes in a state of ignorance, I think there was a sky full of stars and maybe a moonlight shining. At that time, we didn’t know where we came from or where we were going, but we set out on the road guided by these stars. Along the way, we were both lonely and brave, integrating all the wisdom of survival and assimilating everything that came to us or challenged us. We coexisted with them. Even today, I still feel that this is something buried in the hearts or blood of the Chinese people.
Challenge! The Narrative Art of Choreography
Interviewer: It’s amazing! We never expected that a childlike theme could expand into such a grand and universal topic. For works like this that don’t have a strong narrative, how do you usually create them?
Xu Junrui: It’s actually a kind of thinking, as well as an attempt and a challenge. After the performance of “Only Green”, many viewers said that the story wasn’t strongly narrated and the plot was loose and abstract. So I had a self-torturing and never-give-up attitude and told the two directors, “I really want to challenge the limit of narrative density in choreography.”
That’s why I created “Wing Chun” afterwards, which was particularly brain-burning and heart-wrenching. Unlike “Panda”, which was constantly searching and exploring in an open world, “Wing Chun” was like building a complex high-rise building from the beginning, and I was always looking for ways to build it. “Wing Chun” was not created in the usual way of writing a script, but by drawing many charts. The final script was like a mind map.
“Wing Chun” tells the story of a film crew in Shenzhen in the 1990s who were making a movie called “Wing Chun”. The story spans two eras: the Shenzhen studio in the 1990s and Hong Kong in the 1950s and 1960s, when Ip Man first arrived in Hong Kong, opened a Wing Chun school, and eventually made Wing Chun famous. The two storylines run parallel.
I wrote a storyboard for “Wing Chun” as if it were a movie, and also conducted interviews with all the actors who played “Wing Chun” in our play. I imagined myself as an interviewer who went to interview them about their feelings after filming the movie in the 1990s.
Therefore, the script is actually more than just a script. Real-life materials, interview videos, and actors’ monologues are all part of the script. I wrote tens of thousands of words for the interviews, almost writing every character as a complete and rich person with a beginning and an end.
How to Find “Light”? A Mini Seminar on “Wing Chun”
Shi Wei: I’d like to ask our audience member Qi Gu, who I know has recently watched “Wing Chun” multiple times, to share their thoughts with us. Especially after hearing Teacher Xu’s introduction, do you have any new insights?
Qi Gu: I just finished watching the two showings of “Wing Chun” at the Poly Theater in Beijing, and I’ve already watched it four times in total. After the first viewing, I was completely stunned and thought to myself that I needed to watch it again. After watching it a few more times, I paid close attention to the character of Da Chun (the lighting designer). I feel that he has become a beam of light that penetrates time and space, connecting to perhaps parallel universes within the film, connecting to Master Ye, and possibly even connecting to the director.
He gave up his initial definition of a hero, abandoning the idea of becoming a martial arts star or a great hero, and instead became a beam of light that penetrated the darkness, illuminating Master Ye’s confused path and warmly enveloping the director’s film. I truly experienced the concept of “ideal” from this play. I understood Da Chun’s character arc and truly felt a sense of reluctance to let go of this character.
Dance drama “Wing Chun” · Lighting Designer Da Chun
I’d like to ask Teacher Xu, during the “Wing Chun” sharing session, you mentioned that Da Chun was based on a real person, a lighting designer from Henan. How did you find this prototype and use it to connect the plot?
Xu Junrui: I suspect you’ve been eavesdropping on our creative meetings, otherwise how could you analyze it so thoroughly? As a creator, I’m very pleased that the audience can interpret the play to this extent. Your emotional connection and mine are in sync.
At the beginning, when we were discussing the plot, Da Chun wasn’t the main character. We initially wanted to set the protagonist as the “director,” but later realized that if the director was the core character of the entire play, it would be too straightforward. What’s worth exploring and praising about a director who simply fulfills their duty of completing the film?
I kept reflecting and spent half a year researching a lot of information. Later, I compiled a package of materials and distributed it to the crew. They were all surprised and said that it was the size of a thesis.
Research during the creation of the dance drama “Wing Chun,” part of the material package, visiting the production process of Xiangyun silk © Xu Junrui
During this process, I found the prototype of a lighting technician from Henan. I consulted many friends who work on movie sets, and one sentence caught my interest: “Do you know that most of the lighting technicians on set have a Henan accent?” This piqued my curiosity. After doing some research, I suddenly discovered this character, and I was thrilled to tell the director, “Today we hit the jackpot! I know what kind of person Da Chun should be!”
“Light” is an image that only came to me after I had determined the lighting technician. Da Chun’s light source comes from within him, just like what you said earlier, and in the end, he becomes a beam of light that illuminates others. In fact, this is a story of “balancing the transformation between ideals and reality, and ultimately moving towards a new direction.” Da Chun is actually very close to each and every one of us. Whether we are standing in the light or outside of it, there are always moments when we illuminate others or are illuminated by others.
Collecting information, constantly overturning ideas, and going through the self-torture and mutual torture of the creative process are all processes of quantitative change leading to qualitative change. In the end, you will definitely find the thread that you need to follow from the myriad of possibilities.
Turning Words into “Body Language”
Interviewer: Dance dramas usually have little to no dialogue. In this case, what techniques are used to maintain the coherence of the work and keep the story moving forward?
Xu Junrui: First of all, your characters cannot be disjointed, and the story must have basic rhythm and logic from beginning to end. In fact, the difficulty of dance drama lies in the collaboration between the screenwriter and the director. In a sense, the screenwriter of dance drama must “know honor and disgrace, understand advance and retreat.” We need to understand different directors and their vocabulary, which are the dance movements and their interpretation of the situation you want to build, which is the dialogue itself. You can only give them the core expression and temperament, convey the literary style to them, and then let them do the secondary creation, using body language to speak the dialogue for you.
The Birth of “Only This Green”
Interviewer: “Only This Green” created a narrative form of Chinese “dance poetry drama.” How did you conceive of it during the creation process?
Xu Junrui: I am personally very interested in Chinese traditional culture and classical literature, so this kind of creation is actually a cultural self-awareness. When we chose “A Thousand Miles of Rivers and Mountains” as the subject matter, I naturally thought of the Northern Song Dynasty and Taoist style. It is a very fresh, elegant, and minimalist aesthetic style.
Interviewer: This script is also a very literary prose, rather than a traditional script.
Xu Junrui: Yes, so as I said earlier, this is the temperament we need to convey to the director.
“We never thought of a particularly complex narrative for ‘Only This Green.’ It should belong to Chinese traditional culture and Song Dynasty aesthetics. Our country’s dance drama has no academic definition so far. What is dance drama? This art form is still in the process of exploration. Our original intention was for the audience to return to our Chinese aesthetics through the conveyance of concepts. This is a dance poetry drama, and poetry is too easy for Chinese people to understand. When I say this thing is poetry, there is no need to explain, everyone’s DNA is moved.”
How to become a dance drama playwright? Who knows
Shi Wei: The development of dance drama in China is still in its infancy. Do you think that foreign dance drama forms, such as ballet, have any reference significance for the development and narrative of dance drama in China?
Xu Junrui: The choreography ideas of Chinese dance drama and Western dance drama are very different. Especially in terms of the playwright of dance drama, it came later than the development of dance drama itself. We still do not have professional teaching and researchers in this field, and we are all exploring it step by step. I accidentally entered the field of dance drama playwright, and luckily met different directors, tried different styles, and created some works that were seen by everyone. But in fact, there is no methodology or technique.
I am looking forward to an academic study on the methodology of dance drama playwright, but the research methodology must be combined with practice. We still have a long way to go.
Qi Gu: Yes, I also asked some old directors, how to become a dance drama playwright? Then the old man gave me a very discouraging statement: “Those who do not understand dance cannot be a dance drama playwright.” It can also be understood that many dance dramas are decentralized, giving the audience space to interpret, and moving towards a pure artistic field. The scripts of dance dramas and the scripts I like to watch can be said to be very different.
Xu Junrui: That’s right. The dance world is also debating what dance drama is, whether it is a play serving dance or dance serving the play? Everyone has been exploring, debating, and trying for decades, and there is still no definite answer today.
What’s the story behind “A Modern Person Emerges from Qinglv Shanshui”?
Qi Gu: I’m curious to hear from Ms. Xu about the early days of Qinglv and how she connected the various artisans to create the play. How did you overcome obstacles in pushing this project forward?
Xu Junrui: When we were still unsure of what to do, I suggested that we look at famous Chinese paintings for inspiration. There seems to be a natural connection between dance and art. Among them, “A Thousand Miles of Rivers and Mountains” particularly caught our attention. The name and the imagery were great, but there were no people in the painting. How do we write a story?
So we began to consider the craft of painting, dividing the story into several chapters and using different techniques to gradually advance the plot, ultimately presenting a Qinglv Shanshui painting. The first draft of the script only had Wang Ximeng and the artisans. We gathered all the main teachers together to read the script, and after they finished, no one spoke. After a moment of silence, one of the teachers took out their phone and said, “When you use your phone, do you think about the people who make the chips and parts behind it?” I was stunned because the relationship between these two groups seemed forced and unnatural. From then on, I continued to enrich and deepen the story.
One day, Palace Museum expert Wang Zhongxu told us about “A Thousand Miles of Rivers and Mountains” and how when he turned off the lights to take a photo of the painting, he saw a brilliant gem-like light shining from it. That image immediately came to my mind. I looked at Wang Zhongxu and thought, “Isn’t he the perfect protagonist?”
The next day at the creative meeting, I told the director, “I want to add a modern person based on Wang Zhongxu.” The entire team disagreed because everything on stage up to that point emphasized Song Dynasty aesthetics and ancient temperament. But I insisted that we had to add a modern person.
In the end, the directors bravely agreed and figured out how to incorporate the modern person into the play. It was at this point that I breathed a sigh of relief because we finally found the “core” of the play, the resonance across a thousand years. By the time this core appeared, it was already the fifth draft of Qinglv.
The Love-Hate Relationship between Director and Screenwriter
Interviewer: Earlier, you mentioned a scene in the darkness with a shining light, which is the opening of “Only This Green”. Did you have a mental image in mind when you were creating it, allowing imagination and reality to overlap?
Xu Junrui: Yes, definitely. I am a Virgo screenwriter and have a strong sense of perfectionism. Dance drama may be the most powerless art form for a screenwriter because you cannot control the fate of your work or how it will ultimately be presented.
I have been working with directors Zhou Liya and Han Zhen for years, and we have developed a kind of tacit understanding. We have to discuss and clarify all the scenes before we start rehearsing, just like a sand table exercise. Once, both directors were on the verge of collapse, and they begged me to stop, but I said no, we must finish today, and no one can leave until we do! So, it’s a process of mutual support, complementing each other, and also torturing each other.
“I Am That Beam of Light, Illuminating the Stage”
Interviewer: I really want to ask, “What role does a screenwriter play in a work?” It seems that this question has already been answered.
Xu Junrui: It was answered at the beginning. I am that beam of light. I have to stand outside the halo and illuminate everyone inside it. Da Chun is myself, and we bear this role. If the directors are the backstage workers, then the dance drama screenwriter is the “backstage of the backstage of the backstage”.
Whether it’s anticipation, powerlessness, ideals, or disappointment, no one will see it, and you have to digest it silently. You have to make progress and quietly light up that lamp. In everything, you need to “know honor and disgrace, understand advance and retreat.” You may not end up living the way you thought you would, but it’s also a choice in your life. Since you have lit up that beam of light, you must hold onto it and not let it go out.
The Initial Experience of Creating “Weak, Pitiful, and Helpless”
Interviewer: Choreography is a very niche profession. What inspired you to start creating dance dramas? Do you remember how you felt when you first started?
Xu Junrui: Oh, I remember it vividly. It was a particularly chaotic and helpless experience.
I studied journalism, so I worked in publicity when I joined the China Oriental Performing Arts Group. In 2015, the China Dancers Association had a program to train young talent, and our director Zhou Liya was one of the members. The association gave her very little funding and hoped that she could create a small work of her own.
Our group had never created a dance drama before, and we didn’t have a screenwriter position. Zhou asked around and found me in the publicity department: “Xu Junrui, can you help me write a dance drama?” I was shocked and said, “What’s a dance drama? How do I write it? Can I do it?”
We planned to adapt Cao Yu’s “Thunderstorm,” which spanned three genres: dance drama, drama, and traditional Chinese opera. I had no idea how to write a script, so I wrote a monologue for each character and analyzed their personalities, but I didn’t know how to structure it. However, when Zhou Liya read it, she found it very inspiring. So we discussed the presentation structure and the symbolic meaning of each character, and then we started rehearsing.
I remember on the first day of rehearsal, the drama teacher asked me for the script, and I was stunned. I had to write a script too? So while the director was rehearsing, I was writing the script on the side. It was full of uncertainty, awkwardness, and helplessness. This was my first stage work, and it was a magical experience.
The Teacher’s Pet (Release Version)
Shi Wei: Is there any writer who has had a significant impact on your writing?
Xu Junrui: There are actually many writers who have influenced me in my writing. I have been a writing enthusiast since I was young, and my biggest wish was to win an award in the New Concept Writing Competition. When I was a child, I would cover my Chinese textbook with the covers of novels by Zhang Ailing, Wang Xiaobo, and Haruki Murakami, and read them during Chinese class. My Chinese teacher knew what I was doing, but would just smile and walk around me before continuing with the lesson. I am a rather dull person, and my biggest hobby is reading. It’s like I’ve ingested a lot of things, and they have produced strange chemical reactions in my body.
I wouldn’t say that I have read extensively, but I have read widely and diversely, from the Chu Ci and Han Fu to popular online literature. Each has its own nutritional value, and I feel that reading has given me an excellent perception ability that is boundless and can break through barriers.
Shi Wei: Accumulation is definitely necessary for creation. What are some ways you accumulate on a daily basis? Reading is definitely one, but are there any others?
Xu Junrui: I think daily accumulation is actually about observing and thinking about life. When you reach a certain age, it seems like several senses are opened up.
I didn’t have such a strong feeling before, but I gradually realized that I can put myself in the mindset of different people, and I also began to understand that there may not be a stereotypical villain in a situation. It’s possible that everyone is good, or everyone is bad, but the development of events may not be what we think.
I am grateful that my profession has given me many opportunities to interact with people, forcing me to communicate with them. You will find that there are many gains in the process of communicating with people, and perhaps life is our best teacher.
“My works have never belonged to me”
Shi Wei: There’s a saying that when a creative work is completed, its content no longer belongs to the author. How do you understand this saying? Have you ever encountered a comment that left a deep impression on you?
Xu Junrui: For me, the entire process of creation has never belonged to me. I often feel that it is the work and the characters that are leading me, it is a gift, a test, or a guidance from above. When I choose a topic, I prefer to believe that it chose me. You need to communicate with it, invade it, and compromise with it. It’s like one day you’re walking and passing by an alley. You’ve clearly walked past it, but suddenly you feel something calling or attracting you from that alley. I think creation has infinite possibilities. Before a script is published or performed, I constantly review it, constantly look back at it, and try to find which alley I missed.
As for comments, I remember after “Only This Green” was performed, I saw a comment that was particularly shocking and moving. It said, “Only This Green tells the story of a person and his behind-the-scenes team.” It was the first time I felt this overwhelming sense of life. When the dance was first performed on stage, its life had just begun. This is the most profound and intuitive feeling I have had after reading so many audience reports. The artistic life of a work is not created by us, but created and continued by us and the audience together.
I can actually accept both positive and negative feedback from the audience. This is a three-dimensional and rich society, and what each person says or does is inevitably related to their experiences. It’s very interesting to see these comments. For example, I remember a comment on “Wing Chun”: “I can’t become a hero, and I don’t want to be a beam of light. Please don’t block my light.” I was amazed when I read it.
I think he must have gone through something extraordinary. We use a work to explore our lives, and then to explore our ideas. Thousands of voices converge together, and this is a particularly happy interaction.
What is the experience of being addicted to work?
Interviewer: I’m curious, what do you do to adjust when you hit a creative block or lack inspiration?
Xu Junrui: I just keep thinking and don’t do anything else. In astrological terms, maybe us earth signs are more stable, and I just keep going down that path.
It’s like when we were kids studying, our parents would say, “If you’re tired of Chinese, take a break and do some math.” When I hit a creative block while writing about Da Chun in “Ip Man 4,” I would switch to writing about the director. I joke with my friends that I love work and it brings me joy.
Interviewer: I was originally going to ask what makes you feel happy and free, but it seems like it’s the act of creating itself. But I noticed you’ve been playing a lot of Animal Crossing?
Xu Junrui: Yes! Although these past few days I’ve been addicted to “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.”
I think playing games is a great way to exercise your mind. I often think, “Wow, when can I write a script for a game? Those people have so much imagination. They must have so much passion to create such moving characters. Isn’t this the same as creating immersive theater?” Excellent games are really worth learning from, whether it’s the storyline, aesthetics, or the way we experience and think about things. (Is playing games still a creative mindset?)
What is the core of all creation?
Interviewer: All creation, whether it’s games, copywriting, or scriptwriting, is essentially telling a story. We originally wanted to ask how to make a story that moves people, but you already gave me an answer earlier, which is to capture universal human emotions.
Xu Junrui: Yes, I think the core of theater is people. If we don’t speak human language or do human things on stage, then what’s the point of theater? Why do we write for it? Our work is a reflection of our own values as creators, and it’s something that can’t be faked. Every time we start creating, we need to ask ourselves what we want to express as a person.
Also, we can’t separate our lives from our work during the creative process. Often, I feel that our work as creators is a reflection of ourselves, our humanity, and the era we live in.
What scene would you most like to witness if you could time travel?
If my works are fortunate enough to be passed down for many years, I would love to come back to life and see how people view and evaluate them. I want to see how the mindset of that era differs from ours, and how people from that time would interpret our works today. I think it would be very interesting.
Some friends, media, and audiences ask, “Your works are so successful, how do you feel?” I say that success cannot be determined until some time has passed. So if there is a chance to time travel, I would be very willing to participate.