Sex and the Centre

This spring, an oddly intimate and revealing press release was issued by the beleaguered Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts—a rallying cry in the form of an incredible disclosure. The three-year absence of action musicals from the Centre, which owner Dennis Law had been dutifully writing/directing/producing since he bought the half-realized venue across from Library Square in the winter of 2001, was explained like the plot of a soap opera: “The sudden discovery by Dr. Law in July of 2006 that his celebrity actress wife, Moon Lee, was involved in a two year affair with their teenage adoptive son and employee caused such turmoil both within his family and his performing arts company that it took considerable time and effort before some stability was re-established.”

Press were invited to come and chat with Law. Amazingly, only a few journalists showed up, all but one from Chinese media. Law, a thoracic surgeon from Denver, perched on a couch in a black pinstripe suit (a terra-cotta warrior standing sentry behind) and fielded questions about the $1.5 million remounting of his dance extravaganza, Tang Concubines.

In private conversation afterward, Law referred several times to the “record-breaking, history-making tragedy” that was Moon Lee’s affair. “All my dancers knew it and didn’t tell me,” said Law, who claims to have finally clued in when he caught his 18-year-old son, Zong, naked in his closet.

Lee, 44, is well-known in the Chinese world for her nearly 40 Hong Kong films—in which, athletic and uncommonly beautiful, she often plays a pretty girl with a gun. She began her film career in 1981 by starring in To Sir With Troubles. Lee denied the affair on her blog and, according to Law, took out a full-page Hong Kong newspaper advertisement to deny it again. Law denied her denial by self-publishing Two Faces of the Moon, a bilingual treatise on Chinese extramarital affairs that uses Moon Lee’s alleged actions (and Dennis Law’s feelings) as evidence of broader sociocultural phenomena. Included are several pages of damning photos. The book unfolds into a critique of all Chinese sex culture, with advice ranging from the curiously technical (Chinese women are apparently reluctant to take hormone supplements) to the broadly edifying (“Being ashamed is much more preferable to being evil”).

How all this relates to Tang Concubines, which Law wrote just before he discovered the so-called affair, depends on whether you believe in jinxes. In the first half of the show (performed by a troupe of 70 costumed dancers) the concubine Wu Zhao deceives her emperor and becomes the only empress ever to rule China. “It’s about treachery and power,” said Law. In the second half we meet Yang Gui Fei (another concubine), who sacrifices her life to save her emperor. “So love is more important than power,” explained Law from his couch. He gave a tight smile: “Yang Gui Fei is much more famous than Wu Zhao.”

While Law was quick to assert that “when I wrote the show, I hadn’t discovered Moon Lee’s secret,” it’s difficult not to note thematic parallels. Moon Lee “put a dent in Chinese heritage,” said Law, and that heritage is something all his action musicals present to the world (though it’s heritage by way of Riverdance).

The Centre, launchpad for his megashows, has always had a rough ride. The vision of architect Moshe Safdie was severely curtailed and its developer, Garth Drabinsky, had to forfeit dreams of a stable port for Show Boat et al. When Law took over, the city had no love for the venue. Critics panned his productions. Once the action musicals dried up in 2006, the consensus in the local theatre scene was that Law’s gamble had not paid off. “We did not fail,” he insisted. “Western media thought it was a failure of programming. Not so.” Law blames the sabbatical on his ex-wife. In Two Faces of the Moon, he tells Lee her deceit has dragged his work into “your cesspool of immorality” and that “you have irreparably damaged the company.”

In fact, things have gone well for Tang Concubines. In 2007 it won two Dora awards in Toronto. And it opened Law’s Action Musical Festival at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Law took another leap forward at those Olympics: his Monkey King (“the first Chinese rock musical”) had its premiere; it will be remounted here during the 2010 Games.

Law has high hopes for his creations. His bullish energy, especially in the face of “history-making” tragedy, could be read as a kind of action musical in itself. Next up? His press-conference smile was endearing. He rubbed his hands on his knees. “This summer, we’re going to do a sit-down show in Waikiki!”