The beauty of traditional Chinese wushu/kung fu, dance and song meld in the fourth annual presentation of “Mulan” by 80 students at the Chandler-based Phoenix Wushu Academy.
The production at the Orpheum Theatre in Phoenix on Saturday, Feb. 10 has grown each year and features a cast whose youngest perform, Jasmine Mei, is 5 and the oldest, Shirley Lee, is 60.
Students have been practicing every day after school and at least six hours each weekend to meet the high bar set for the performance.
“We’ve definitely raised our production to another level with visual effects, costumes and choreography,” said Bonnie Fu, the academy’s director who has directed the production since its inception. “We manage to have a full house for every performance.”
Fu and husband Andrew Ho – known as “Master Ho” to students – founded the Wushu Academy in 2010 after moving from China in 1996. She has been an actress since age 16, appearing in many Chinese language and U.S. films; he is a six-time U.S. National Champ in wushu/kung fu, an ancient form of martial art that challenges and trains physical limits as well as inner strength.
Hua Mulan is a legendary woman warrior from the northern and southern dynasties period of Chinese history who became the central figure of the Ballad of Mulan. In the ballad, Hua Mulan takes her aged father’s place in the army, fighting for 12 years before she retired and shunning any reward for her service. It was the basis of a 1998 Disney animated feature.
Andrew Ho plays Mulan’s father in the production, and also is choreographing the fight scenes and wushu performances.
The couple, who met on a movie set, say their goal is to “promote and bring awareness to the Chinese culture and arts.”
Kelley Chan, an Ahwatukee BASIS eighth grader who started at the academy five years ago, is one of the majority of cast members who are returning this year to the Orpheum stage. But her involvement at the academy focuses more on regular martial arts training like long fist, staff and straight sword.
“I started as the Little Mulan in the show, and now I’m promoted to Teen Mulan, and will be performing Chinese dances in different scenes,” she said. “The show is about a brave girl who has to train herself to be a warrior to fight on behalf of her father. I love this show and it gives me many things to try.”
Ethan Dancho, of Chandler, 14, finds Mulan a challenge in many areas.
“Although performing in Mulan uses wushu skills, it also requires other skills such as a lot more synchronization, choreographed sparring, acting as our character and tai chi,” Dancho explained.
“When I do wushu, it’s just me on the floor and I no longer have to worry about synchronizing or acting as my character or timing everything right. So I’ve learned a lot by doing Mulan,” said Dancho, a member of the USA Traditional Wushu team who earned a bronze medal at the 2017 World Kungfu Championships last November in China.
“Mulan is a lot of fun, and it’s something I enjoy doing every year,” added the BASIS Chandler eighth grader. “Performing in front of a live audience has taught me to overcome my shyness.”
Hamilton High School junior Ryan Huang is reprising some roles he’s done in the past three productions, but is also gaining a new one. He will play the Mongolian – a part he’d watched older boys playing during his years in the cast.
“My involvement in ‘Mulan’ has allowed me to explore skills in closely-related arts such as sparring, tai chi, and traditional forms of wushu and even acting,” Huang said. “Sparring, in particular, has forced me to change my perspective on group forms as there are multiple constituents that go into creating a powerful, realistic experience for the audience.”
“Through this play, I’ve been able to employ a wide range of my Wushu abilities, anywhere from the basics to more complicated moves, such as tornado kicks,” he added. “All in all, Mulan has taught me how to be a team player. Lots of effort, detail, and coordination go into a production such as ‘Mulan,’ and although stressful, is a blessing to be a part of my Wushu family, peers who I’ve literally grown up with and can call my brothers and sisters.”
Elise Yeung, who recently turned 10, plays Little Mulan, as well as other roles. Multiple roles are common for a number of cast members.
“I learned that it takes many people and teamwork to help you change (costumes), do make-up and hair for you to be able to do your part,” said the Archway Classical Academy fourth grader, who performs wushu and tai chi skills onstage along with brothers Noah, 12 and Caleb, 13.
“I’ve learned a lot of new skills like how to act scared, happy or annoyed, and in dancing, I learned to always be synchronized with other people,” she added.
Her parents, Betty and Bruce Yeung are active in the academy and the production as well – as are many academy moms and dads.
“Being a part of the wushu school and the production, Elise has enjoyed not only sport and wonderful wushu training, but also opportunities in the arts, theatre, international competition, culture and community,” said Netty Yeung.
Jane Ho, the 20-year old daughter of the academy founders, portrays the older Mulan. Like others, she performs other roles, too, and is active elsewhere in the production, serving as a visual effects director, animator, editor and one of the producers.
“I’m extremely honored to be in this production and have the chance to perform at the Orpheum Theater,” she said. “One of the main reasons I’m in the production. and why the Phoenix Wushu Academy produces this show annually, is to create the opportunity to spread and promote Chinese culture and arts to the public.”
Jane Ho, a film and video production student at Mesa Community College, also is a concert pianist who admires the production and its potential influence on the audience.
“We believe that arts connect us all, regardless of age, ethnicity or background, and it’s our duty to preserve our culture and share its beauty with the rest of the world,” she said. “Mulan is a timeless story filled with good morals that will hopefully inspire our audiences and encourage our younger generations to do the same.”
Even after four years performing and watching the production, Jane said she’s still moved to tears at certain scenes.
“If I had to choose one, it would be when Mulan’s father gets drafted to war and he has to say goodbye to his family. It’s amazing to feel the emotional changes in this scene. One moment I’m crying my head off because the farewell between Mulan and her father is heart wrenching, but the next moment my heart is racing because of the epic special effects of the fight scene in which our actor who plays Mulan’s father fights against shadows projected onto the screen, and it’s really intense.”
This year’s production boasts costumes from different regions of China, thanks to the efforts of costume manager Chloe Cheng.
Fu said most wigs and some costumes come from a manufacturer who supplies movies and film companies, including Disney.
Locally, tailor Alice Xiao creates dance costumes unavailable elsewhere, and Win Ou, owner of Chandler’s Win Salon, is responsible for cast’s exotic hairstyles.