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The Blue Dragon, Robert Lepage's meditation on modern China, is playing at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. (Erick Labb/NAC)

This article originally ran on March 31, 2009. The Blue Dragon is part of Vancouver's 2010 Cultural Olympiad.

For most of his three-decade career, Quebec theatre visionary Robert Lepage seems to have adopted Bob Dylan's old credo: Don't look back.

'I've abandoned filmmaking. The thing that really killed it for me was the Canadian policies of film funding. It's a real joke.'

—Robert Lepage

Ever since he exploded on the Canadian scene in the 1980s with a succession of magical productions – Vinci, Polygraph, Tectonic Plates – the globe-hopping director-actor has moved restlessly from project to project. When not creating an array of original works with his company, Ex Machina – from solos like Needles and Opium to ensemble sagas like The Seven Streams of the River Ota – Lepage has done radical Shakespeare for Britain's National Theatre, staged operas from Paris to Japan and bedazzled Las Vegas tourists with his Cirque du Soleil extravaganza . He's ventured boldly into feature films (beginning with Le Confessionnal, his 1996 Genie Award-winning debut), designed rock concerts and staged a panoramic outdoor spectacle for Quebec City's 400th birthday.

With The Blue Dragon, however, the 51-year-old Lepage has finally slowed down to take a backward glance. His new play, currently running at the National Arts Centre, is a follow-up to The Dragons' Trilogy, the epic that gained him international attention a quarter-century ago. While that show dealt with the West's romantic fantasies of China, The Blue Dragon is set solidly in modern-day Shanghai. It catches up with Pierre Lamontagne, the Quebec artist who, at the end of Trilogy, left to study in China. The play takes stock both of China's global image as an economic powerhouse and of how Lamontagne's generation of Quebec artists has changed in the intervening years.

The production, which stars Lepage, Marie Michaud and Tai Wei Foo (as Pierre's artist lover, Xiao Ling), is making its English-Canadian premiere at the NAC following dates in France, Spain, the U.S. and Quebec. In a phone interview from Ottawa, Lepage discussed The Blue Dragon, as well as his latest super-sized work, the nine-hour Lipsynch, which will play Toronto's Luminato Festival in June. He also revealed why he thinks the Harper government's arts policies are shortsighted and why he no longer makes movies.

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Actor-director Robert Lepage in a scene from The Blue Dragon. ((Alain Julien/AFP/Getty Images) )

Q: Why did you decide to create a sequel to The Dragons' Trilogy?

A: It's often thought of as a sequel, but actually it's more of a spinoff. We're not really referring to The Dragons' Trilogy outside of the character of Pierre Lamontagne. At the end of [that play], he's the guy who gets the grant to go to England to study, and he decides to use it to go to China. The Dragons' Trilogy finishes with this promise; the French-Canadian guy represents the hope of the whole story – he's actually going to go for real to China. So, after 25 years, you think, Well, did he go? And if he went, what happened? And how has China changed in the past 25 years? And also Quebec? And I've changed. So it's really not looking back, it's looking in at what things have become. It's about the raw reality of today's China.

Also, I'm past 50 now. There is a moment when you kind of go, Well, it's nice not to look back, but what have you accomplished, and where do you want to go from here? And the character of Pierre Lamontagne has always been a bit of an alter ego for me. We're the same age. We're the same height.

[Laughs.]

Q: He was also a character in Le Confessionnal, wasn't he?

A: Right. He wasn't the real Pierre Lamontagne; he was a film version. But he's a very practical alter ego for me to play around with and interrogate. The show's set in modern-day Shanghai, but it's a setting to compare my own culture with. I do that with a lot of my shows. You take characters out of Canada or out of Quebec, and you bring them into a completely exotic locale or an antipode, and you compare. And certainly, China is a very interesting place to do a cultural comparison right now. The country is opening up to the world, but it's still a repressed society with a lot of censorship. That's the big picture, but you can use that as a sounding board for a character who is turning 50 and doesn't really know where he's going, or what his work is about. His mid-life crisis echoes the crisis China is going through now. 

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Tai Wei Foo performs in the NAC production of The Blue Dragon. ((Erick Labb/NAC))

Q: In the play, Pierre reconnects with his old art-school lover, Claire, played by your old Dragons' Trilogy collaborator, Marie Michaud. Claire is now an advertising executive – quite a contrast from Pierre's career trajectory.

A: I wanted Pierre to meet with a character like that. I came out of the [Conservatoire d'art dramatique] in 1978, and in those days, everybody was either socialist or communist or separatist. None of us was a capitalist, and certainly, none of us thought that time would go by and some of us would start doing TV series and soaps and commercials. For me, that has always been an interesting phenomenon: How can artists who have a social conscience and promise that they'll be putting their talents to the service of noble causes, how is it that you end up as a spokesperson for Coca-Cola? I always wondered why I escaped that and why some other people didn't. I understand totally the choices they made. I'm not necessarily giving them flak for that, but it is a phenomenon: Who are you serving? What is your talent used for? That's always been a fascinating subject to me.

Q: Unlike The Blue Dragon, which is an intimate one-act, Lipsynch has a big cast and runs nine hours. Do you start out with a project like this saying, "I think it should be nine hours long?"

A: Yes, we do. The whole numerology of these collective projects is very important. We start playing around with an idea, and then a number usually pops up. For example, with Seven Streams of the River Ota, the seven was kind of imposed by the fact that the River Ota had seven branches, and we were telling all these different stories with seven actors. Lipsynch involved nine performers quite early in the process, and we felt there was something about a nine-hour day that fit the subject matter and storyline. And for logistic and practical reasons, nine hours is pretty much as far as you can stretch [a show].

Q: Why did you want to create a play on the theme of the voice and the role it plays in contemporary culture?

A: I think Ex Machina, and my work in general, is always associated with images. People always talk about our visual vocabulary and how we're obsessed with the image, which is completely false. Yes, compared to other companies, there are a lot of images, but we're also very interested in the word and oral expression, music, lyrics and sound. So this time, we decided to focus on themes of voice, language and speech. It attracted some very interesting people to the rehearsal room. We have people from different cultures and languages; we have opera singers, rock singers, we have impersonators – anything that had to do with different incarnations of the voice. The story follows nine characters, and all their stories are loosely connected. There's a bit of intrigue – over nine hours, there are a lot of cliffhangers that have to be resolved in the last story – but you don't really need to have seen all these stories to appreciate [the show]. You could just walk in and see one of them and be satisfied.

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A scene from Robert Lepage's play Lipsynch. ((Erick Labb/NAC/Luminato))

Q: I mentioned Le Confessionnal earlier. You've made a number of films over the years, but the last one was Far Side of the Moon in 2003. Do you have any new projects in the works?

A: No. I've abandoned filmmaking. The thing that really killed it for me was the Canadian policies of film funding. It's a real joke. And it's the only discipline where I ended up being a beggar. You sit in front of these script specialists who are hired by Telefilm Canada to justify why they won't give you money. They say there's a fundamental structural problem in your film script and that's why you're not getting any money this year. You say, "C'mon guys, you're just using that as an excuse for the fact that my films don't sell as much tickets as a blockbuster comedy." I don't want to deal with these guys anymore. You don't want to beg; you don't want to crawl. Why should I crawl to be funded? I make more money doing shows with Cirque du Soleil and La Scala opera company in Milan than doing a big feature in Quebec.

Q: Is the elimination of federal touring grants affecting you?

A: Oh, it is, completely. At Ex Machina, we have four shows touring right now, in New Zealand, Australia, London and here at the NAC. We have tons of things touring, and a lot of work depends on that money. But because we have a lot of collaborators around the world, we're not as affected as dance companies are in Canada, like Marie Chouinard or La La La – these great cultural ambassadors of Canada, who have been completely cut by Harper's lack of vision as to who really represents Canada abroad and the economic repercussions of touring.

Canadian artists are not just decoration; we're not maple syrup and stuffed moose. We're there to represent the originality and know-how of our country, to show that we think differently, we're not the United States, that we have a radically different take on world politics and diplomacy. That is, first of all, expressed through the art that we export. And that's been cut. It's really a shortsighted move.

The Blue Dragon runs at Vancouver's Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre, SFU Woodward's,  as part of the 2010 Cultural Olympiad, Feb. 2-27.

Martin Morrow writes about the arts for CBCNews.ca.