Taoist philosopher Lao-Tzu described the ideal leader as one who works his influence everywhere, but leaves no trace of his presence. In talking with Davi Leong, one wonders if the cosmic laws that govern Taoist kings might also hold true for fight choreographers. With over 250 productions to his credit, Leong i easily the most in-demand fight director in America; and yet he works under a peculiar paradox. The better he does his job, the less likely audiences are to notice his efforts.
We met in the cafe section of New York’s Roundabout Theatre, where Leong’s handiwork adorned the company’s recent mounting of William Inge’s 1953 slice of Americana, Picnic. There was something almost poignant in the way we tiptoed into the auditorium to watch the fight sequences, then tiptoed back to our tabl once the onstage clashes had run their brief course. Every minute of choreographed mayhem represents about 10 hours of rehearsal time, so Leong has had to get used to watching the fruits of his labor pass by in a flash. But the biggest thrill for him–and for the audience caught up in the spectacle–is the scrappy sense of reality in the scenes, and the seamless way they blend into th action.Order now
The man behind all the fencing and fisticuffs is a 42-year-old Brooklyn residen with a dauntingly diverse resume: certified fight master, Juilliard professor, playwright, producer of live entertainments for theme parks, Obie award-winner and expert juggler. He gives the impression of a man completely at home in his own body; speech and movement seem to flow from a center of calm, a reservoir o unassuming confidence he carries about with him at all times.
Leong studied drama at the University of New Hampshire, where he more or less fell into the role of fight director because of his previous experience in gymnastics and movement. This led to membership in the Society of American Figh Directors, where he came under the influence of Patrick Crean, the legendary master who coached Laurence Olivier and served as Errol Flynn’s double.
Leong became a fight master himself in 1983–a title he shares with only eight others in the country. The process is a remarkably gruelling one: Each candidat must serve five years as a certified teacher and actor/combatant, demonstrate a thorough expertise in the use of weapons, acquire a knowledge of theatrical literature and history, build up 20 union credits as a fight director, have his work scrutinized in performance by other masters, and pass written and oral exams.
The end result, in Leong’s case, is an ability to disguise rigorous technique a spontaneous action. The point is to create a volatile moment onstage that hits the audience in the solar plexus, rather than a stylized technical display. Since a fight can only look convincing if it is treated as part of the total performance, Leong spends considerable time exploring character motivation–whether he’s working with professional actors or his third-year acting students at Juilliard. “It’s all about the interior,” he says. “Then I translate that into physical terms with the actors.”
This often means paying special attention to silences–as in a Miles Davis piece, where the spaces between notes express as much as the notes themselves. “The fight moves don’t mean anything,” Leong explains. “It’s all about what happens with the actors when they’re not fighting. In the middle of a fight they’ll stop for a second, and there’s a beat–I look at you, and I see what you’ve just done to me, and then the audience sees this rage build up in me. It’s those moments between the fighting that really are more interesting.”
Two of Leong’s recent New York projects have allowed him to flaunt his talents fully: Nicholas Hytner’s acclaimed revival of Carousel at Lincoln Center Theater, and Julie Taymor’s violence-inflected production of Titus Andronicus a Theater for a New Audience. His work is evident throughout Carousel, but most conspicuously in the “Blow High, Blow Low” number, in which some 17 grog-swilling sea dogs are caught up in a donnybrook in a waterfront tavern. Richard Rodgers intended the number to be accompanied by a dance, but Leong and Hytner decided not to go that route–partly because of Leong’s aversion to stagy-looking “choreographed” fights, and partly because Hytner wanted a real knock-down drag-out brawl. (“If you want to do that kind of thing,” Leong says, “you can’t count it out in beats.”) The music was arranged to fit the movements rather than vice versa; the result is a dynamic, invigorating whirl of energy that works both as a fight and as a musical spectacle.
It’s that wild, rough-around-the-edges quality that gives Leong’s fights their smack of authenticity. His punches look like they really hurt. “A lot of fighting I see onstage looks so slick,” he says. “It should look out of control without being out of control. It has to be urgent.”
Undeniable visceral wallop
Titus Andronicus brought out a somewhat different side of Leong’s abilities: namely, supervisor and sometime-designer of grisly special effects. Bardolaters have long been embarrassed by Shakespeare’s first attempt at tragedy, a cornucopia of gory goings-on better known for its head-baked-in-a-pie scene tha its deathless verse. But for someone of Leong’s interests, the play is an embarrassment of riches–a succession of scenes in which actors are impaled wit candlesticks, choked with soup ladles and hung upside down with their throats cut.
Such scenes pose intriguing technical challenges and pack an undeniable viscera wallop, but they lack the dynamism of a true fight, which according to Leong ca be “almost an intellectual thing. There’s strategy involved. I cut here with a sword, you parry there, I see that you’re pretty fast so I go over here–it’s a much a chess match as anything. A play like Titus is basically acts of outright aggression, and oftentimes the victim has no chance to even think about it.”
On the heels of SubUrbia at Lincoln Center, and Oleanna and Orpheus Descending at the Alley Theatre of Houston, Leong works on Michael Kahn’s adaptation of th two Henry IV plays, due Sept. 20 at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C. If he’s lucky, his schedule will still leave him some free time for his family in Brooklyn’s Park Slope–the site, ironically enough, of a recent scene more tense than anything Leong has staged. While visiting a playground with his one-year-old son, a couple of preteens started playing with a loaded pistol. It fired. No one was hurt, but it was the kind of violence that could give pause even to a certified fight master.