Skip to main content

Jo Tomalin

Book of Mountains and Seas by Huang Ruo and Basil Twist at Stanford Live!

By Jo Tomalin

Stanford Live presents Book of Mountains and Seas, a work of vocal theatre created by Huang Ruo, composer and librettist, and Basil Twist, director and designer. Performed in the Bing Concert Hall April 6 and 7 2024. Ruo, formerly Composer in Residence at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam collaborates with Twist, a third-generation puppeteer to bring to life four ancient Chinese creation myths. Transcribed in the 4th Century BC this performance is told through twelve singers, six puppeteers and two percussionists. The impressive Ars Nova Copenhagen perform the vocals while puppeteers deftly move surrounding and across the stage with object puppetry such as flags, lanterns, rocks – and finally, a magical surprise!

The four myths tell the story of The Legend of Pangu and the creation of our planet – how the mountains, seas, rivers, lakes, suns and mankind were created – and each story is different visually and dynamically. The lyrics are based on original Chinese texts from oral and written history with summarised English supertitles projected on the circuar black background of the stage. An impressive array of percussion instruments is placed on both sides of the stage whose mesmeric sounds melt in and out of the stories.

Singers in long black robes gently move to different places on the stage for each part of the story, with only their faces lit reflecting from their open song books. It’s dramatic and curious. Twist is well known for exquisite puppetry and here objects that evoke wizened driftwood are carefully placed and transform into different landscapes with ease. There are many highlights to note in this production, such as a spirit bird that flies around, brought to life by several puppeteers; The Legend of Ten Suns is particularly memorable with a beautiful choreography of lanterns that emotively change colors; the delicate songs and quality of the vocalists is ever present, and the contemporary percussion music is at once haunting and reverberatingly beautiful. Inspired lighting design plays an important part of the storytelling in this piece with tight focus pin lights on the evolving landscape center stage and later, shadows bouncing off the high ceiling of Bing Hall adding atmosphere and scale.

Ruo and Twist have created an outstanding and unique piece of theatre with music. Experiencing this seventy five minute performance is surreal and stunning allowing us time to breathe and be transported. A vital quality that is so effective is the time Ruo and Twist take to develop this new world with respectful restraint minute to minute. The stories unfold seamlessly – and without realizing it we are breathing with the visceral imagery and sound taking us to mystical places that we do not want to end. If you have the opportunity to see this show, do so – it’s Highly Recommended!

More Information about Stanford Live

o, composer and librettist | Basil Twist, director and designe