A Monkeying Superhero
INTERVIEW WITH PRINCIPAL DANCER PIOTR HUANG
Principal Dancer Piotr Huang may come across as a reserved young gentleman. But get to know him, and you’ll find that he’s actually quite fun to be with. For four seasons, Huang has performed the role of the playful superhero from Journey to the West—the magical Monkey King. And he shares that Monkey’s Golden Cudgel has become his favorite prop to dance with on the Shen Yun stage.
The Monkey King is a household name throughout East Asia, where even the youngest children know about the all-powerful demon king who was sentenced to 500 years of confinement under a mountain, then guided by divine intervention to convert to Buddhism and protect the Tang Monk on a pilgrimage to retrieve scriptures from the land known today as India.
Journey to the West—the hundred-chapter Ming Dynasty novel that became one of China’s Four Great Classic Novels and has been adapted into countless movies, cartoons, plays, comic books, and more—is bursting with moral lessons and fantastic adventures, not to mention Monkey’s marvelous supernormal abilities and silly antics.
Today, we sat down with Huang to find out: What is it like to be Super Monkey?
What is your take on the Monkey King?
PH: I like that he is so dauntless. Nothing under the sky can frighten him; it’s as if he can raise mountains. And he always goes head on against any foe.
Despite his superhero status, do you think Monkey has any character flaws?
PH: I admire his fearlessness and confidence. But Monkey can also be quite arrogant, which can get him into trouble from time to time. But don’t worry—at the end of the day he always comes through.
Out of all of Monkey’s superpowers, which one is your favorite?
PH: He can fly really far with his awesome flips! Monkey’s specialty is called “cloud somersault”—a flip that carries him 108,000 li (about 35,000 miles). That would be super useful because I could go home to Poland and see my parents anytime I wanted to. (Wow, filial piety noted!)
What other cool superpowers of his would you want to have?
PH: Being able to conjure monkey clones from my hair would an awesome trick. That way I could get all my work done at once! Though in our Shen Yun dances, Monkey’s sidekicks aren’t as powerful as he is. In which case, I guess his most useful power would be shapeshifting. Monkey often tricks his enemies this way. For example, he’d fool them into thinking they’ve captured his master, then transform back into himself and clobber them when they least suspect it.
Is there any change in your take on Monkey’s character after playing his part in the Shen Yun performance?
PH: When I was young I thought Monkey was the representative superhero from traditional Chinese culture. I didn’t see much difference between him and superheroes in the West like Superman, Spiderman, or Captain America. But now I find them to be quite different. Western superheroes seem vulnerable to human foibles. Monkey, on the other hand, not only has great powers (and looks cool while harnessing them), but throughout the story he also undergoes a life-transforming ordeal.
In the beginning, Monkey looked down upon all the other deities, caused mayhem as he pleased, and thought the world of himself. He considered himself unbeatable, until finally Buddha Amitabha trapped him under a mountain to have him come to his senses. Then 500 years later, the Buddha arranged for Monkey to take up the robe. From then on Monkey also had a greater mission: to protect the Tang Monk (his new master) and help him bring Buddhist scriptures back to China so Buddhism could be spread throughout the land. Along the way, Monkey overcomes 81 tribulations, and, episode by episode, learns to be more humble and to shed his egotistic nature. In the end, Monkey attains enlightenment in cultivation! (I don’t think any Western superheroes have attained enlightenment yet.)
What can you learn from Monkey’s odyssey?
PH: I think everyone is on his own “journey to the west” pilgrimage. It’s just that the scriptures we seek are unique; each person’s objective is different. At Shen Yun, our mission is comparable to Monkey’s. We’re not striving for wealth or A-list status. Instead, we press on because we have faith in the beauty of traditional Chinese culture and in the good it would do to revive it around the world.
Shen Yun performers may not have Monkey’s “72 shapeshifting abilities,” but each person does have to overcome “81 tribulations” of his own. Sometimes it can get hard or discouraging, but in the end, like with Monkey, perseverance will bring success!
Any little secrets you’d like to share about playing Monkey?
PH: When I’m not really in the mood to “monkey around” during the show, I find that making monkey noises on stage helps me get into character.
What does that sound like?
PH: Like, “Kkkh-kh-kkh-kkkkkkkkkh!”
So that’s the Monkey King from Principal Dancer Piotr Huang: a headstrong, fearless superhero making his way through a spiritual journey while battling countless monsters along the way. Apart from that, he’s still very monkey!
Shen Yun 2019 is almost here! Check out our schedule page, so you won’t miss Piotr and the Monkey King in the city nearest you.