My aim in this post is to tease out some of the differences between what I’m calling a stunt-centric approach to action and a choreo-centric approach to action. Generally speaking, a stunt-centric approach to action emphasizes pacing, editing, and plot while working hard to cover up a performer’s inability. A choreo-centric approach, meanwhile, emphasizes movement, motion, and flow while showcasing a performer’s physical abilities. This is not in any way about saying that martial arts choreographers are better than stunt coordinators or vice versa. Both groups of people do phenomenal work, often in collaboration with each other. This is about being a little more clear regarding their differences so that we can discuss and appreciate each type of work with greater clarity and specificity.
What is choreography? If this were a high school/undergrad paper, I might start by saying “the dictionary on my computer defines choreography as ‘the sequence of steps and movements in dance or figure skating,’” and already, we find the first issue with choreography: the term tends to almost exclusively be associated with the art of dancing in the United States entertainment industries. The clearest illustration of this association can be seen in some of the ways achievements in choreography are recognized within the industries.
Exhibit A: The Primetime Emmy Awards
The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences has consistently handed out the award for “Outstanding Choreography” since 1970. Just look through the list of winners and nominees and it’s clear: as far as the industry is concerned, choreography is for dancers. Since 2007 (that’s 11 years!) Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance have both received nominations every. single. year. Both shows! Every single year! And at least one of them has won the award 9 of those years. In total, So You Think You Can Dance has received 38 nominations, while Dancing with the Stars has 18. Looking through the list of all nominees and winners, I do not see a single attempt at considering fight choreography as a possible take on choreography. If I’m wrong, PLEASE point me to the fights!
Exhibit B: The World Choreography Awards
According to its own website, “The World Choreography Awards is an annual live show that celebrates creativity and innovation by recognizing excellence in the art of media choreography.” When I first read this self-description, I found their word choice interesting: media choreography. I actually got optimistically excited that maybe that covered choreography in forms beyond dancing! But nope. I was wrong. From everything I’ve been able to find, these awards are exclusively for, from, and about dancers. With celebrations of choreographers like Paula Abdul and Mandy Moore, and board member bios that tout connections to legends like Gene Kelly and Rita Moreno, the World Choreography Awards may as well have been titled the World Dance Awards.
Choreography is for Fighters
While the american industries seem to find choreography so closely linked to dancing, the Hong Kong Film Award has recognized “Best Action Choreography” every year since their 2nd annual celebration in 1983. The biggest winners and nominees for that award are household names to any martial arts movie lover: Yuen Woo-Ping, Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, Corey Yuen, Yuen Biao, etc. Other East Asian awards shows that recognize choreography in Action specifically include Taipei’s Golden Horse Awards, the Jackie Chan Action Movie Awards, and Mainland China’s Huading Awards.
Choreography is for Everyone
You know what the craziest thing about this cultural difference in approaching choreography is? The fact that in both practice and execution, Chinese martial arts choreography and Hollywood dance choreography have more in common than you might think. I’ve written before about the history of Chinese opera aesthetics in martial arts films. To reiterate some of the priorities of the martial arts film mode of production: it is largely about emphasizing the performers’ actual skills and abilities, which generally takes priority over presenting a great deal of depth in the complexity of the narrative’s plot and characters.
Sound familiar? I’m pretty sure we could safely use the same words to describe some of the greatest Hollywood musicals of all time. Name just about any musical with Gene Kelly, or Astaire and Rogers, or those of Rodgers and Hammerstein, etc, and the plots are typically secondary to the promise of seeing your favorite performer perform some great physical feats! It’s why a theorist like Rick Altman can develop an approach to understanding the vast majority of American musicals as films with a “dual focus narrative.” The narrative/plot/character development is typically not the main draw. It’s the performances!
The shared emphasis of a performer’s actual physical abilities between musicals and martial arts films extends to the formal qualities of the choreographed sequences as well.
Let’s take a look at this awesome sequence from the classic 1935 Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers film, Top Hat:
What are some words that come to mind? I think of flow, rhythm, motion, movement, fluidity, precision. In order to allow these skills and qualities to shine, the editing and cinematography need to take a step back in order to let the performers work their magic. Their job is to allow the audience to be absolutely certain that what they’re seeing is their favorite perfomer(s) doing the thing they love to watch them do: in this case, dance! Which is why, for the final 2 minutes of this clip, when the pair really start dancing, the camera keeps THEIR ENTIRE BODIES in view THE ENTIRE TIME.
Here’s a great martial arts counterpoint, from Jackie Chan’s 1980 film The Young Master. It’s a crazy long sequence, but if you want to get the point I’m trying to make, the first 2 minutes will suffice:
It’s a an amazing piece of choreography, and they know it! And they want to show it! Which is why we get so many shots of their full-bodies. “But Munib,” I hear you say, “both of the clips you cherry-picked are old-timey moving picture shows! Times have changed. Average shot lengths are shorter, cuts are faster, they don’t care so much anymore.” To which I say, “phooey!” The rules still apply in more recent films. They’ve just taken on a slightly more fast-paced and kinetic form.
Let’s look at two more examples.
First up, 2002’s Chicago, which, as I recall, had a marketing campaign that made a pretty big deal of the fact that its lead actors trained for months in advance to be able to really do the singing and dancing on screen. The biggest choreography piece comes about 1:45 minutes in:
Next up, Jackie Chan’s 1998 film Who Am I?. The fight begins at about 1:30.
As you can see, much of the same rules apply. Yes, there are more cuts in both films than in the earlier counterparts of each genre. However, the general rules and priorities are still the same: let viewers see what the performers are doing, cut less, and make sure that if you do change the framing of the shot, it maintains its focus on the choreography and skills of the performers in question. Another really cool thing about all four of these clips is how similarly they were structured: they all begin with a bit of a slow build up, and allow for some little breaks before going into the fullness of the choreographed sequence.
Shoot, if we want to go even deeper, the Four Arts and Five Skills associated with Chinese opera traditions might as well be describing the American musical. The Four Arts consists of singing, reciting, choreographic moves, and martial or acrobatic arts. The Five Skills include the Chinese characters for hand, eye, torso, step, and method. I mean, the only way I can see these parallels get even more explicit is if a major martial arts star made specific reference to an American musical in one of his movies!
The Choreo-centric Body
In Part 1, we looked at how the stunt-centric body reflected the priorities of stunt-centric action. So what are the implications for a choreo-centric body? The choreo-centric body would need to reflect the prioritizing of, among other things, agility, flexibility, fluidity, efficiency, and motion. Let’s look at some martial arts stars of the last few decades:
Don’t get me wrong, these bodies definitely draw admiration for their physical state and condition. But, I think it’s safe to say that their most impressive features are actually the skills and abilities contained within. From the perspective of the viewing audience, the stunt-centric body induces an “I wish I looked like that!” reaction, while the choreo-centric body creates more of an “I wish I could do that!” response.
The priorities of a choreo-centric aesthetic also allow for greater inclusion of active female protagonists than the stunt-centric mode ever could. With a value hierarchy that places physical skill, ability, and fluidity above sheer muscle mass, male and female choreo-centric performers are held to fairly similar standards and granted fairly equal opportunities. That is not to say that this realm of the industry is free from sexism, but rather that choreo-centrism provides greater opportunities for more varied body-types across genders to achieve equal success and recognition than stunt-centrism can offer. Think of Ronda Rousey and Gina Carano’s limited chances and opportunities to become action stars in their own right.
Meanwhile, some of the women making films and entire careers as martial artists include the following:
Because this choreo-centric aesthetic prioritizes choreography, coordination and command over one’s body are crucial. Which is what makes it possible for so many martial arts stars to receive little to no actual marts training. Proficiency in other art forms like dance, ballet, and gymnastics provide a lot of transferable skills for performers.
A Deeper Cultural Difference?
Part of what I’m getting at in all this is a cultural difference in approaching action between Hollywood and Chinese-language film industries. There’s this great quote from Jackie Chan about his experience with this cultural difference in aesthetic priorities when filming The Big Brawl, one of his earliest cinematic attempts in the US.
The following comes from The Essential Jackie Chan Source Book by Jeff Rovin:
The studio hired an American, Pat Johnson, to “supervise” Jackie. The result was predictable. “Pat Johnson would tell me what American audiences will believe and what they won’t believe,” Jackie explained in an interview soon after the film was completed. “He said Americans want to see power, they wouldn’t believe that a real kung fu punch, that has little movement, would really be powerful. So instead I had to use a roundhouse punch, even though real martial artists would never do it this way. But he said that’s how the audience likes it.”
(Special shout out to my friend Jason Pollock for pointing me to that awesome bit of corroborating evidence!)
But Chan pretty much nails what I’m trying to say here right on the head. What he describes is the ground-level tension between the incompatible priorities of stunt-centric and choreo-centric action.
We could go even deeper and talk about how these different priorities are even more deeply connected to the cultural differences we find in ideas of masculinity in the US and in China. And how the emphasis on a balance between wen and wu – scholarly/artistic abilities and physical/martial abilities – is reflected on the actors and characters most often seen on screen. But maybe I’ll save that for another post : )
All of which is to say, the priorities of a choreo-centric approach to action can be felt in various aspects of the industry and its filmmaking practices: in the shared aesthetics between dance and fight choreography, in the types of bodies and performers that tend to be celebrated, in the editing and cinematographic choices in action and dance sequences, and in the very cultural notions of masculinity itself.
So Now What?
It’s time for us to start thinking, talking, and writing about martial arts choreographers as martial auteurs (or maybe martial arteurs?) – visionary artists with unique voices expressed through their choreography, who work within a specific history and context, who engage in choreographic intertextuality, and who put on a personal signature in their work that is equally influenced by and influences others. And while they often work in close collaboration with stunt coordinators, and share a lot of overlapping skills, it is important to be clear about how distinctly different they each are in order to better appreciate each profession’s unique contributions to the industry as a whole.
Netflix and other new venues have been great at providing spaces for “visionary” voices to be creative with fewer restrictions than the typical studio or network system might allow. The streaming giant recently gave a 10-episode order to what I’m pretty sure is going to be my new favorite show: Wu Assassins, a martial arts drama with Iko Uwais taking on multiple responsibilities, including lead actor, producer, and lead martial arts and fight choreographer! Stephen Fung, Lewis Tan, Tzi Ma, and other amazing people are also involved, so you know I’ll be there.
But what would it look like for martial auteurs to be included in the list of filmmaking personnel who get to be described as “visionary?” What would it look like for their aesthetic vision to be given the green light by a studio or network? What would it look like for a particular style of choreography to be the guiding vision of a show? What would it look like for us to reach “peak” martial arts on American TV? With Into the Badlands and now Wu Assassins being brought to American viewers, I’m hoping that peak moment comes sooner than later.