Sunday, March 01, 2009

Creativity in China

Friday was the last day of the workshop, and we gave a presentation of work-in-progress for the SDAC management, the Festival, and other interested parties like the Swedish cultural representative in Shanghai. I found it all a bit nerve-wracking and strange: the whole point of this time had been to avoid the pressure of performance, and suddenly here we were, not only performing, but knowing that our work was very much being assessed as a result. I tried to be as clear as I could about the state of the work – explaining that there was no script yet, that the actors were still improvising and experimenting, that the movement work was about ideas rather than finish, that there were holes all over the stories, that was they were seeing was only one version of what might happen. I was also very aware that this whole way of working was very new, even to this most avant-garde of Chinese theatres, and that the audience may just not get what I was trying to say.

So – it was a huge relief when the first sequence we showed (Denise and Micha’s choreography about the tsunami) earned a round of applause from the little crowd, and when Qi and Mia’s comedy of misunderstanding started to draw laughter. Hui and Jue also started getting laughs – and not just for lines in Chinese. And, at the end, Nick Yu stood up and said how moving a lot of the presentation had been. He then handed over to the Artistic Director of SDAC: Lu Liang. I’d been wondering for some time who really was in charge. Nick has always seemed to make the artistic decisions when I’ve been around, but I knew he didn’t have total power. For a while, I had thought that a woman director who had sat in on a number of our sessions, and given some very useful suggestions, might be the artistic director (she said she was “an artistic director here”). But no – Lu Liang is a charismatic, middle-aged man, who (I’m now told) is very famous as both an actor and director in China. He says a few apparently non-committal words about new work processes, and disappears. Otherwise the feedback is very good: Forrinna Chen from the Festival is full of enthusiasm, and the editor of a Chinese theatre magazine asks for articles about the work from both the choreographers and myself.

In the evening, Director Lu reappears next to me at dinner. Another banquet, this time hosted by SDAC for everybody who has worked with us these last three weeks. This time, he is much more forthcoming: he says that he and Nick have talked, and that, subject to “the approval of the arts board” (whatever that may be) they are keen to present the production. A huge relief to me. I “gam bei” with him in rice wine, and (via Ling) we discuss devising processes, the state of Chinese theatre, and the interesting writers at work today. It feels like the sort of event where I should make a speech of thanks, so I stand up and say some rather formal things about the value of cultural exchanges and the importance of art in envisioning the future of the planet. Director Lu’s answer is jokey and fun: he says that I clearly know what the Communist Party would expect me to say. He’s quite right that this is the sub-text of the speech (although I also believe it!) – but it’s very striking that he should say so. We also joke about calling one another “comrades”: in contemporary China, the word for “comrade” – tongzhi – has been appropriated by the emerging gay movement. It’s all very unexpected, and very liberating.

Saturday sees me on the train to Ningbo, to make another visit to the strange outpost of Nottingham University there, and my old friend Roshni Mooneeram. Roshni has advertised a workshop with me around the campus. We’d expected we might get about twenty people who were interested to explore creativity… in fact, about 150 students show up on a wet, cold Saturday afternoon. I have to get them to push their desks back to the walls, and get them moving around. To begin with, it’s incredibly difficult: the level of inhibition is quite formidable. But slowly, through little play-making exercises, we start to find some real emotional truth. Scenes emerge about students chatting up or dumping one another, about tourists looking at China, about businessmen re-developing rural areas, about decadent Western behaviour – there’s even a scene about a pick-up in a gay bar. The students, who were silent at the start of the workshop, are laughing and clapping wildly by the end, full of joy at the creativity of their contemporaries. It’s fascinating and remarkable – they are clearly totally unused to seeing their lives re-created accurately like this, particularly by people who they know.

At the end of the session, as Roshni is telling me that she’s seeing many of her students in a totally new light, one of them shyly sidles up to us. She’s been one of the most enthusiastic participants – but now she seems to have reverted to an earnest girl in glasses. “Excuse me”, she says. “I have a question. What is the point of this?”

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