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Academy of Art Represents the Rebellious Year of the Monkey for 2016

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Bob Toy directs students from the Shaolin Temple Kung Fu school. Courtesy of Bob Toy.

This year Academy of Art University celebrates the Year of the Monkey by exhibiting the infamous legend of the Monkey King (Journey to the West) for San Francisco’s Chinese New Year Parade. The annual festivities takes place Saturday, Feb. 20.

The Academy’s involvement in this vibrant and entertaining event the last couple of years was recently rewarded. Just this past year, the Academy’s float was recognized by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, receiving the Most Artistic Float Award. Bob Toy, publications and special events project manager, is returning this year as the project manager and art director for the Academy’s float. In addition to leading the team in designing the float, Toy was also asked to direct the opening number of the Chinese New Year Parade.

“It’s a classic. It’s like Superman in America. [The Monkey King] is a superhero,” Toy said about choosing the theme for the float this year.

The sequence that Toy has created is a condensed version of the monkey’s story on his way to a journey of spiritual enlightenment. “I want to tell a story...there’s a meaning for each animal. That’s the whole thing about how the animals are [chosen],” Toy added. He has really taken a stance on how he wanted to represent the story differently than people have done in the past. He wants to inform and educate the non-Chinese audience members on this very model story that really led to the growth of Buddhism in China.

Luckily enough for Toy, he has a supremely talented and professional group from the Shaolin Temple Kung Fu school that he worked with alongside Shaolin Kung Fu master Yanran Shi. Having observed a recent rehearsal for the big day, it is evident that the atmosphere is energetic while everyone gets into their places to begin what has become so much more than a mere dance number. Toy has a very specific vision and the legend of the Monkey King plays out before the small group that has gathered to the side to watch. A group of children, playing little monkeys, prance with precision as they follow the Monkey King. They circle a large peach to represent the magical peach that the Monkey King stole from the tree on the holy land.

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One of the choreographed fight scenes. Courtesy of Bob Toy.

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The cast of the parade opening with Bob Toy. Courtesy of Bob Toy.

Just when it seems as though the Monkey King gets away with this crime and all the monkeys are jubilant, the group is surrounded by a second group of the dance team. This second group is playing the soldiers, who were hired by the emperor to fight the Monkey King in an attempt to stop his plotting and troublemaking ways. This is where the sequence gets particularly intense. The movements are swift and coordinated. Each little monkey attempts to jump in and defend its beloved Monkey King, somersaulting and leaping into the circle to fight a soldier wielding a stick or sword. Little monkey after little monkey toss themselves in front of the Monkey King defending his honor. As much as the movements have been choreographed, they look natural and have a certain flow to them that makes the action unpredictable and exciting.

Toy explains that he chose the story of the Monkey King not only because 2016 is in fact the Year of the Monkey, but also because the entire story is built on the fact that the monkey was disciplined for using his super power for bad behavior and a monk wanted to see him do something good. The monk sought the protection of the Monkey King, as they embarked on a journey to the west to bring back 35 scrolls of scriptures. They walked 108,000 miles on foot over thousands of mountains, across 10,000 bodies of water, battling numerous monsters and demons during their three-year quest. The Monkey King was granted buddhahood for his service and strength and became a superhero for the east.

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Shaolin Temple students as soldiers receive directions from Bob Toy and Shaolin Kung Fu master Yanran Shi. Courtesy of Bob Toy.

In addition to Shi and Toy, who has worked tirelessly, is Jason Kuo, an M.F.A. student at the Academy majoring in music production and sound design, who composed the music for both the opening number and float. He describes working with Toy to be a very unique opportunity to be able to contribute to such a special occasion. Kuo explains that he wanted to be sure to blend traditional Chinese instruments with electronic and keyboard synthesizing to end up with a very distinctive sound for the opening number. Kuo enjoys what he’s been doing and how working on this type of project gives him a lot of space and possibility to develop a new style of music. It was particularly fun to combine the wild gestures of the monkey with hip-hop music.

The atmosphere of the rehearsal is very light and fun, and yet everyone is clearly very honored to be there. The children don’t stop smiling; laughing and playing, while the older children involved practice their combative arrangements for the big fight sequence. Even though there are people of many different age groups, they all work extremely well together. Some of the children even play basketball in between run-throughs of the show, but then get right back into their monkey characters.

Not only has there been a lot of enthusiasm put into this project, but it should be a highlight of the parade.

Watch the Southwest Airlines Chinese New Year Parade live in Union Square on Saturday, Feb. 20. The festivities begin at 5 p.m. The parade will also be televised on KTVU FOX 2 and KTSF at 6 p.m.