They do acrobatics in elaborately embroided silk costumes, dance in boots with three-inch platform soles that weigh two pounds each and somersault with intricately decorated headdresses and glided masks.
The 400 or so handmade costumes that parade, dance and sometimes somersault throughout the spectacle of the Peking Opera actually surpass in splendor anything Paris artisans could create. Some of the costumes took months to finish with 14-karat gld hand embroidery.
The value? It depends on whom you ask. All specially made for this trip and based on Chinese court costumes of the Ming dynasty (14th -- 17th centuries), they would cost about $500,000 to replace but with hardly the same workmanship, according to Daniel Lomax. He is the American wardrobe supervisor with the production, which opened last night at the Kennedy Center Opera House for performances through Sept. 14.
"But remember," says Gerald Wen, liaison officer with the production company, "in China the emboiderers would be paid $100 per month."
If the making of such costumes is a rare Chinese art, so is the wearing of them. There are no zippers, and only one warrior costume has buttons. The rest are tied securely to the body to withstand the acrobatics and tumbling of the actors. So securely, in fact, that when New York costume designer Patton Campbell was tied into one back stage at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, he commented, "It is so tight I can barely move. I can't imagine how one might dance this way."
There are two wardrobe men tying everyone into the costumes, except for the big scenes, when as many as 28 warriors are on stage at once. "Then everyone is tying up everyone else," says Lomax. When a costume needs to be shortened for a performer, it is folded and tied in place.
No one has flipped his ties, or even split the seams or loosened many beads, in spite of all the apparent roughhousing on stage. In fact, there is little body contact -- actors rarely touch each other with their clear-cut action -- and all action takes place on carpeting which acts as cushioning. But just in case, there are spools of gold and silk threads on hand, ready to be used.
The clothes traveled here in 39 trunks plus an additional nine trunks for makeup and a six-foot long trunk to accomodate the equally long wild pheasant feathers used in some head dresses and the knee-length natural hair wigs.
Makeup, applied with painstaking precision, takes as long as an hour and a half to apply. Like the costumes, the colors and the motifs are symbolic. While orange and other bright colors mean royalty in dress, red means loyalty, dignity and integrity in makeup; black means honesty but toughness with fairness; white suggests characteristics of treachery and cunning. And if someone is wearing multi-color makeup, he's likely to be a criminal, villian or ghost.
The tradition of heavy makeup may stem from the fact men used to play all the female roles. Masks are often just partial face-covering finished off with makeup. Actors in the Peking Opera are rarely seen without head coverings; when they are, it's a sign that the character is in great trouble.
Since the start of their American tour three weeks ago, most in the company have changed their personal wardrobe to Western dress, including light lipstick, neckties and even, at least for one, a cowboy hat. So far, no jeans.