After going to ground when COVID-19 hit, the Prosperous Mountain Dragon and Lion Dance (PMDLD) troupe will awaken Canberra with a roar at Lunar New Year celebrations over the next fortnight, starting with Lunar New Year’s Eve on 11 February.
PMDLD founder David Wong says the non-profit, volunteer, community-focused collective is more like a family than anything else.
In a normal year, PMDLD would meet every Sunday to practice and after a “very quiet and long winter”, the troupe has been catching up on lost time since spring arrived.
“To not train for about six months, it was very, very difficult to get the cold engine started again,” Mr Wong says.
“It was very unnerving for me; we were about nine months behind in terms of performance standard and stamina.”
The engine quickly warmed up, and PMDLD will be full throttle with about 40 performances on this month’s agenda.
Mr Wong says not every troupe member needs incredible stamina or agility, and PMDLD welcomes performers of all ages.
Each training session begins with a group run around the block, then stretches, before the Head, Tail and other parts of the lion peel off to do more intensive exercises and Kung Fu-based stances.
“The Head’s role is to have high jumping ability and stamina to do multiple jumps.
“But also, a lot of the realism is in the lion’s head – moving it in a catlike motion, not like a robot, trying to make it look alive.”
Mr Wong says the Tail is the “poor bunny” who needs to be bent at 90 degrees most of the time, sometimes lifting the Head into a jump, like in a rugby ruck.
The Head and Tail have a secret language to communicate those kinds of lifts, involving tugs and taps on the waist.
Mr Wong explains there are two types of the Southern Lions; one is the traditional, fiercer lion, designed to frighten away evil spirits.
It has sharper horns, an open mouth, visible teeth and a bulging forehead, and the dancer controlling its head is usually a bit more visible underneath.
The second is a more contemporary design, which looks friendlier and resembles a dog.
PMDLD has sets of twins in nearly all the colours of the rainbow, and the fluro pink set is a crowd favourite.
The lion costumes are entirely handmade; each lion is a two-week job involving a ‘skeleton’ of bamboo rattan covered in hand-painted papier-mâché.
“They’re so beautifully made; we keep them in bags and shelved nicely. We brush their fur to remove grass and debris.
“We also care for them by airing them out, and since COVID has hit we use a lot of Glen 20 on the inside.”
Part of the fun is designing colour schemes for new lions, a task Mr Wong happily obsesses over.
“That’s my little bit of a contribution, we get to choose the fur, sequins, the body, we have our team name on the lion’s head and collar.
“The kids love talking about it.”
The troupe has a range of dances in its repertoire, each suited to different settings.
The Four Door Routine makes frequent appearances during Lunar New Year and audiences recognise it by its set-up of benches in a cross formation with a wooden bucket in the middle.
Mr Wong says it tells a story about family and friends congregating from all different directions to welcome the Lunar New Year.
“As we’re becoming a more globalised world, a lot of friends and family don’t live in the same city or country as each other.
“It’s all about reunion.”
Another favourite is a PMDLD original called New Friends, which tells the story of two lions that live on opposite sides of a mountain, both believing they’re the only one.
“One comes to the realisation there’s another lion on this mountain,” Mr Wong says.
“They become friends and go up the mountain and play together on top of the waterfall, then they come down and celebrate.”
Mr Wong says it’s a reflection of Canberra, where the PMDLD troupe is always making new connections.