14 March 2011 at 12.11pm | Comment on this article
As David McVicar’s Aida returns to the stage, we have been behind the scenes to follow martial arts co-ordinator David Greeves and his team of 15 men as they rehearse their triumphal entrance in Act II. This is the point when the Egyptian warrior Radames returns from war as the glorious victor. Greeves’ troupe pave the way for his grand entrance with a dazzling display of martial skill and ferocity, meticulous in its timing.
The moment is perhaps one of the most famous set pieces – and tunes – in the opera, whose beguilingly uplifting music belies the sinister narrative played out on stage. Director David McVicar chose to stress the macabre, dark element of the piece and asked Greeves, his frequent collaborator, to devise a suitably bloodcurdling display of warrior power. On stage, the men’s faces are blank, their eyes staring out in confrontation; their chests bare and smeared with blood (a sticky mixture of sugar and real animal blood), as they enact a deadly drill of ritualized killing – so automatic to them it appears a reflex action.
The performers have been intensively rehearsing for three weeks, undergoing a gruelling schedule to build stamina and force. Their technique must be exact, honed to split-second accuracy as they brandish their katana (Japanese Samurai swords - blunted for the stage but still capable of breaking a bone). Every sweep of the blade is accurate in style and speed, matched to the tempo of the music with its steady punctuation and clarity. Each is emblematic of a specific act of combat – a cut to the neck or blow to the body – all precisely rooted in the ancient Japanese art of Battodo Fudokan (a 1000-year-old code of swordmanship).
Greeves, initially trained as a contemporary combat dancer, and has become a specialist in such theatrical martial displays. He began this process two years ago, seeking out the instruction of British Battodo Fudokan master John Evans. Greeves is quick to confess that he is no master of the art – but merely a humble pupil. Along the way, he has gained the guidance of Zhu Qihui a 32nd generation Shaolin monk from QingQing who holds a Sixth Dan in KungFu (one of the highest accolades). Zhu Qihui leads the men on stage, his sword flashing in a potent mix of ascetic grace and lethal velocity. The other warriors are a diverse crew of martial artists, combat experts, actors and dancers. All intensely dedicated to their craft, and each with his own colourful tale to tell. If you can't see them on stage, be sure to watch them in action in our film.