Journal of Theatrical Combatives Feb 2002

When is a martial art not a martial art? 
Fight Choreography in perspective

Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.
Copyright 2002 Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.

Recently, some scholars in the field of martial arts and theatre have considered the relevance (or lack thereof), of fight choreography to traditional martial arts practice. In 1999, I chaired a panel at the Guelph School of Japanese Sword Arts on “creativity in martial arts.” Martial arts scholar Ray Sosnowski deplored the addition of show business “flash” to martial arts practice, referring to such practices as “engeki do” (the “way of theatre”) and “eiga do” (the “way of film”) (1999: 6). On the other hand, theatre professor Robert Dillon has suggested that stage combat choreography, involving use of recreated old European weapon and empty hand techniques, could be considered and practiced as a martial art in its own right (2000: n.p.). I have written about the use of theatrical elements that can be found even in some very traditional Japanese martial arts enbukai, such as costuming, music and lighting effects (1999). Clearly, there is a need to examine what fight choreography is, and what its connection is to traditional martial arts.

This paper examines fight choreography in perspective - what it is, what it is not. How, at its best, fight choreography advances the plot of a play or film, and, at its worst, glorifies realistically depicted violence for its own sake. In between there is a range of both realistically and aesthetically depicted violence depending on the medium. I will further consider how fight choreography is sometimes confused with actual fighting and/or martial arts practice.

Put simply, fight choreography is staged conflict for purposes of entertainment; whether it’s between individual protagonists or large groups of people. For Western theatre goers, fight choreography includes bareknuckle fight scenes; some highly stylized, as in West Side Story. Others are more realistically staged, as in Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge. In classical Western theatre, fencing scenes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet come to mind.

If we expand the repertory to include non-Western theatre, however, we find an entire “world” of imaginative stage combat. Acrobatic duels and battle scenes take place in various forms of Chinese opera. In kabuki, tachimawari involves weapons, barrels and various other props. In parts of Indonesia, randai makes use of the martial art pencak silat. The classical South Indian dance theatre kathakali derives choreographic movements from the martial art kalaripayattu, to name only a few examples.

Contemporary martial arts and theatrical combatives have the same roots. Let’s use kabuki tachimawari and sword fighting scenes in Elizabethan theatre as examples. Both theatrical forms developed as a reflection of everyday life in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Both include fight scenes that reflect the use of weapons and techniques in common use at that time. For kabuki, these included empty hand, long and short swords, halberds, knives, spears, sticks, ladders and ropes. In Shakespeare’s time, “short swords, short staves, the half pike, partisans, glaives or such like weapons of perfect length” gave way to rapiers and daggers in dominating conflicts among individuals (Silver 1599, 3). As reflections of contemporary life of the times, we can assume the techniques employed on stage reflected what an audience might see at an actual street brawl or duel.

Like other traditional aspects of Japanese culture, kabuki has held on to some original fight techniques, which can still be seen. The fight choreography one sees today in the 19th-century kabuki play, Benten Kozo (“Benten the Thief”) (1862), for example, is probably what was originally designed for that production. Kabuki theatre techniques are taught and passed on from one generation of performers to the next by use of kata (form) as a teaching tool. Actors learn the actual fight scene rather than just abstract combinations of the techniques involved.

However, the West lost fighting techniques that became outmoded, so the techniques that made up fight scenes in Shakespeare can only be recreated or approximated today. There is no physical record of them in today’s Shakespearian actors. There are no “classical” Western fight scenes - each piece of fight choreography is newly crafted for each production. Manuals of ancient Western fencing techniques are just beginning to be recovered by historians and martial arts enthusiasts, though whether any of the techniques recovered will ever become aestheticized and make their way into the New Globe Theatre is not known (1).

In the realm of stage fight choreography, kabuki and Chinese opera styles are the major genres that not only preserve fight choreography from earlier times, but also display a high degree of skill in presenting it on stage by actors who endure years of rigorous training (2). Western fight choreographers often have only weeks to work with variously skilled actors before a production opens, and have to adapt their choreographic designs accordingly.

Western stage-combat-as-martial-art advocates point out the repertory of techniques involved and the discipline of training needed for fight specialists. Kabuki tachimawari is taught and passed on through kata, a tried and true method used for teaching many traditional Japanese arts, including budo. If one considers a martial art to be a set of combative techniques with a history of being passed down through time using set patterns of movement, modern budo and tachimawari look very much alike indeed.

Having noted the common origins of stage combat and some forms of martial art, however, the resemblance ends there. Fight choreography is not a martial art. From their common origin of actual fighting, each genre took a different path.

All contemporary martial art forms have as their objective the practical aspect of subduing an opponent. This can be very much at the forefront, as in judo, or more subtle, as in iaido (the art of drawing the sword), but efficacy is an essential element of any martial art. Though iaido is a meditative art form, students are continually reminded that their sword-handling technique must be correct in order to develop the meditative aspects. Fight choreography has the exact opposite function: it is intended to look real, or at least dangerous, but to cause no harm whatsoever to the participants or audience. It is surprising how often this simple distinction is ignored.

As I have argued elsewhere, fight techniques, especially in combination such as kata, are inherently dramatic (Klens-Bigman 1999: 12). In a typical iaido kata, two opponents face off in some situation. One antagonist makes a threatening gesture--beginning to draw a sword for example. The opponent reacts by drawing his sword faster and making a preemptive attack, following it up with a coup de gras in short order (iaido kata are always brief). Life and death, flashing steel. The difference in the iaido kata is that the techniques are practiced in deadly earnest, but with an imaginary opponent. In fight choreography, the protagonists are both present, and the one who “dies” is covered in blood. He later gets up, cleans up, and goes home. Obviously deadly intent cannot be present, or we would quickly run out of actors (and load up on lawsuits).

Fight choreography is always larger and more visible, the better for an audience to see it, though most actual fighters will probably agree that the more the subtle the move, the more effective it is. Fight choreographic sequences are always drawn out; though again, a practical martial artist will tell you that the best solution to a conflict is no conflict, and if there actually is a conflict, it is best if it ends quickly.

The common factor of dramatic quality in both martial arts and fight choreography inevitably leads to confusion and blending of techniques by practitioners who lack enough experience in a traditional art form. Ray Sosnowski has pointed out that some martial art students, in spite of this lack of experience, are nevertheless encouraged by their teachers to create their own kata as a requirement for attaining rank (1999: 8). I have also seen this in taekwondo practitioners and in an otherwise traditional judo school.

The reason for a martial arts teacher tolerating the mixing of theatrical and practical techniques frankly eludes me. Perhaps some contemporary teachers, aware of the preponderance of action programs on television, feel their students might have a shot at a career as a fight choreographer, and consider theatrical combatives a part of their development. Maybe the decision to encourage such creative kata, or, at least to not to interfere, is economic; that is, theatrical practices help retain students.

At its best, fight choreography adds greatly to the excitement of a film or dramatic production while at the same time advancing the plot and developing actors’ characters. One can hardly imagine how the plot of a film like Gladiator (2000) could advance without the fight scenes, as bloody as they are. Not only is the plot advanced but the characters of those involved are clearly revealed. For example, we see Maximus exhibit some habits, such as twirling his sword in his hand before a fight. That habit consistently reveals him to the film-goers, even when his face is concealed by his helmet. In one of the best scenes in the film, Maximus organizes his fellow gladiators, based on his experience as a field commander, to save them from certain death in the arena during the reenactment of the “second Battle of Carthage.” Organizing the men to win against ridiculous odds works dramatically to reveal Maximus as no ordinary fighter (Dreamworks LLC and Universal Studios 2000: n.p.).

On the other extreme, Jackie Chan, who originally trained as an acrobat for Chinese opera, uses fight choreography nominally for plot advancement, but more for wit and humor (2001: n.p.). Chan often incorporates a sense of reluctance on the part of the hero to engage in a fight in the first place. He accents this point by showing outtakes at the ends of his films which typically show him and his fellow actors actually getting hurt in the course of filming a fight sequence. Aside from the many bumps and bruises, there are occasionally serious accidents. At the end of Rumble in the Bronx (1996), the outtakes show a female stunt motorcyclist being strapped to a back board and loaded into an ambulance after a scene goes awry (New Line Cinema: n.p.).

At its worst, fight choreography displays a level of gratuitous violence which may or may not be contributing to the increase of violence in everyday life. What there is of character development usually involves some form of approval of the choices the hero makes to commit a violent act, rather than to walk away. Or, as in the case of many episodes of Xena, Warrior Princess, the heroine combines wisecracking humor with dispatching an antagonist.  Realism in fight choreography also produces a loss of perspective regarding real violence. Professional wrestling and martial arts action films are, at first blush, prime examples of genres where the lines of practical martial arts, real fighting and staged entertainments are blurred.

Pro wrestling, if one takes the time to actually sit through a live event, is fun, but obviously fake. I had the privilege of attending a live performance two years ago, featuring "Stone Cold Steve Austin" at Madison Square Garden. Every bout had the same plot: the fight took place between a "good" wrestler and a "bad" wrestler (interestingly, individual wrestlers can play either role, depending). The "bad" wrestler used an array of dirty tricks against his opponent, such as sending his buxom wrestler girlfriend into the ring to punch the good guy while he was down. The "good" wrestler seemed on a number of occasions to be subdued, about to be pinned on the mat (three times is a good number for a single fight). As the referee counted him out, the crowd despaired. Then, somewhere between the count "9" and "10" a solitary hand shot up from the floor, trembling with effort, and the "good" wrestler escaped the pin. The crowd roared. Eventually, after a few more reversals, but not so many as to totally bore the audience, the "good" wrestler triumphed. Order was restored to the universe. A victory dance ensued. In the case of Stone Cold Steve, his “dance” consisted of standing on the ropes at each of the four corners of the ring in turn and dousing himself with foaming cans of beer which he crushed open with his manly fists.

Choreographically, pro wrestling looks surprisingly like contact improvisation, an activity that was popular in the 1970’s with some dancers and aikido practitioners. Plot-wise, anyone with a little background in the history of American performance recognizes this as good, old-fashioned melodrama, and any audience member over 12 knows it. Pro wrestling is entertainment. In true melodramatic tradition, it usually offers up a moral of fair play over foul, though, like any good form of entertainment, the bad guys do win occasionally. Usually it is either not for long, or the evil winning wrestler undergoes a conversion, wherein he sees the error of his ways and transforms himself into a good wrestler in time for the next title bout. Would that professional sports figures were so ethical.

Pro wrestling therefore is not, I don't think, a place where reality gets confused so much as it is simply suspended, except for children and social critics. Martial arts films and other forms of martial arts-based entertainments, however, are another story. Part of the reason for the confusion has to do with martial artists themselves. Consider some leading men in martial arts films: David Carradine, Steven Seagal, and the immortal Bruce Lee. All are purportedly "real" martial artists. As Robert W. Smith has pointed out, however, Seagal and Bruce Lee's experience in martial arts was not as considerable as their experience as performers (2000: 345-350). Combining entertainment and "real" martial arts as careers by these individuals understandably confuses viewers, especially young ones, who make up most of the cohort of martial arts students. Small wonder action sequences make it into classes where students emulate their heroes.

Unfortunately, "real" martial artists who are not film stars also contribute to the larger than life status of their art forms. Consider the appropriation of the word samurai to apply to virtually any Japanese or “sort of” Japanese style martial art, even if samurai or bushi had little or nothing to do with the history of the art form (I know a taekwondo teacher in Queens, New York who named his dojang "Modern Samurai.") A few years ago in the Journal of Asian Martial Arts, Jon Bluming debunked some of the amazing feats of his karate teacher, Mas Oyama (Oyama himself referred to these stunts as "monkey business”) (1998: 80-85). I have also seen setups at demonstrations. A few years ago I watched a karateka at an outdoor demonstration. He assembled 12 one-inch boards with spacers between them. He doused the boards with lighter fluid and then set them on fire. The boards were allowed to burn for some time before a break was (successfully) attempted. Children were not the only ones in the audience to be taken in on this one. Robert Smith was surprised that the fictional composite figure John Gilbey attained status as a sort of martial arts legend, even though Gilbey was created as a lark and never intended to represent serious martial arts practice (2000: 113-118).

So when it comes to separating stunts and fight choreography from reality, martial artists can share some of the blame, even when their intentions are good. Mas Oyama’s “monkey business” was simply his way of popularizing karate. Then it became history. This does not mean that actors can’t be martial artists. Haishing Yao has pointed out that many acrobatic actors in Chinese opera also study fight techniques (2001: 21). I have met kabuki dance teachers who also study kendo and aikido. One simply has to maintain clear borders. Actor Obata Toshishiro has managed to keep his original style of swordsmanship, Shinkendo, distinct from the silliness of his acting career in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle epics, truly a major achievement.

I'm convinced that pro wrestling will take care of itself; but I'm not convinced martial arts will. Each of us, as teachers, has an obligation to take note where we encounter questionable practices in spite of our reluctance to criticize other martial artists. It's the only way to distinguish martial arts and fight choreography and keep each in their proper perspective.


1. For more information on current research and recovery of lost systems of Western fight
techniques, see for example, Galas (1997) and Greer (2000),

2. For more information on kabuki actor training, see Pronko (1971).


Bluming, Jon
1998 “Without spirit, budo is but an empty shell” Journal of Asian Martial Arts 7:2, 74-85.

Chan, Jackie
2001 “Seven Little Fortunes” Stareastnet.com: Jackie Club

Dillon, Robert
2000 Personal communication with the author.

Dreamworks LLC and Universal Studios
2000 Gladiator (feature film) (Scott, Ridley, Dir.).

Galas, S. Matthew
1997 “Kindred spirits: the art of the sword in Germany and Japan” Journal of Asian Martial
Arts 6:3, 20-47.

Greer, John Michael
2000 “Swordsmanship and esoteric spirituality: an introduction to Gerard Thibault’s Academie
de L’Espee” Journal of Asian Martial Arts 9:2, 18-27.

Halford, Aubrey S. and Halford, Giovanna M.
1956 The Kabuki Handbook Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Company.

Klens-Bigman, Deborah
1999 “Towards a theory of martial art as performance art” Journal of Asian Martial Arts 8:2,

1999a “Tachimawari: kabuki’s art of stage combat” paper given at the Association for Theatre in
Higher Education conference, Toronto, Canada (MS).

New Line Cinema
1996 Rumble in the Bronx (feature film) (Tong, Stanley, Dir.)

Pauka, Kirsten
1997 “A flower of the martial arts: the Randai folk theatre of Minangkabau in West Sumatra”
Journal of Asian Martial Arts 6:4, 10-29

Pronko, Leonard
1971 “Learning kabuki: the training program of the National Theatre of Japan” Educational
Theatre Journal 23:4 409-430.

Silver, George
1599 Paradoxes of Defence (Lindahl, Greg, Ed.) www.pbm.com/~lindahl/paradoxes.html

Smith, Robert W.
2000 Martial Musings Erie PA: Via Media Publishing Company.

Sosnowski, Ray
1998 “Creativity in the martial arts - a personal odyssey” paper given at the 3rd Annual
Guelph School of Japanese Sword Arts, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario (MS).

Yao Haishing
2001 “Martial-acrobatic arts in Peking Opera - with a brief analysis of fighting movement in a
scene from The Three-Forked Crossroad” Journal of Asian Martial Arts 10:1, 18-35.

Zarilli, Phillip
2000 Kathakali dance drama: where gods and demons come to play London: Routledge.

JTC Feb 2002