Sunday, October 24, 2010

Reactions from China

Roshni emails to tell me what the students had to say about the show on their return to Ningbo.

"Had an hour follow up discussion with the students. They were completely stunned by the play and said that, as I did to you, they found it difficult to know what their reactions actually were, having never experienced anything like this. We started by discussing what the play was about which was (rightly) tricky and we got a number of contradictory responses which was fruitful - play is about culture clash, play is about multiculturalism, play about culture mixing. I then asked for 5 most striking things to them as individuals and that have stayed with them since. We got some very good things, lesbianism being one. They almost all picked up on it - we were not convinced that they would. They were quite a literate audience by any standards. There was an energetic debate over the wrongs or not of Sammy selling his body. There was some good and honest reflection on the one child policy and female infanticide in China. I drew parallels to other countries, India being an obvious one. There was only a tiny bit of the-world-is-against-China paranoia. Someone suggested it was wrong and biased to represent China's past on the infanticide front but someone else said that this still happened. Big things happened in this class. Oh and someone said that lesbianism did not exist in China until foreigners introduced it. So, please send me details of the Chinese poetess so I can forward details to them. We talked openly about censorship! Someone had already leaked the answer to that last question to some of them. But the rest of them guessed or when they found out they were not suprised - ancestor worship being not even a religion and the kind of mumbo-jumbo that the Party disapproves of was the response. I pointed out that this is more than acceptable among the Chinese diasproa in Mauritius for example. And someone concluded that most Chinese do do these rites anyway in China, party line or not...

We talked about narrative techniques, non-linearity, multiple persepctives, paradox - all of which are the stuff that real and increasingly globalised life is made of.

Fascinating stuff. Several of them said that they found Linda to be an intriguing character - the packing in of a good job to be a dancer. I finished with the question of whether as English Studies students (as opposed to Business Studies which almost all parents try to coerce their children into) they were doing something similar?

I'm still gobsmacked by all this and it certainly gave me a sense of purpose and fulfilment as an academic that I would struggle to find amongst our more jaded English students."

And this is from a young Chinese audience member:

"You know, as human beings, we don’t really have the right to choose a lot of things; our gender is one of them. When we were born, we were decided to be girl or boy by the god. Usually we just accept it and go on to living as whom we are, and we maybe never thought of why we are women or men. When someone behaves in the opposite way, we just think “what’s wrong with him/her?” No one would think about the original life. And we cannot choose where to be born either.

Because of the gender and the place which we couldn’t even decide by ourselves, we living in very different ways. Someone faced to death directly, like Cuihua’s daughter. And someone who like to be a woman, but born to be a man, like Sammy. Though he is brave to change, and make money in his way, he has to burden a lot of course.

And as Alex, she is the one who cannot live with questions. She loves Song, Song loves her too, but her act of that, is escape, escape from the life, escape from “odd acting”. Maybe her parents’ marriage is a tragedy, which affects her; maybe she just wants to have the “mummy’s love”. She tried, but failed, so, to take rebirth is a better way for her, just like Velu’s feeling about his girl. She dances like a swan, and the swan lowed its head when Julian and Mary being together. Because of their acting, she came into this world, and that brings her a lot of sadness.

We should try new things, instead of ordered by other people or life. Actually, there are so many things in our life, which make us hard to change, hard to being ourselves, but that’s the real life. That’s what Linda. Maya and even Johan’s doing.

Just like this show, we couldn’t know what our life want to tell us, but we living in it.

In my opinion, this show is kind of having philosophy meaning. And I really surprised you can put those ideas into one show. The more I saw it, the more I want to re-consider my own life. That’s the interesting part for me---thinking.

One of my teachers said: yesterday is destiny, but you’re the master of your future. I like this, and it’s a good conclusion of Re-Orientations I think."

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Jia tong University

On Monday, Haili and I were at Shanghai's Jia Tong University, as part of their UK Culture week. We did a workshop on different approaches to performance (the madness of improvisation, contrasted with the discipline of yueju), and then had a long question and answer session, which reminded me of conferences with academics who are more interested in how clever their question sounds than in the answer. Still, it was a fascinating day, at one of China's leading academies, which is anxious to expand its arts provision (UK take note!). The students had been at the final, packed performance the previous night - and were very excited about what they'd seen.

So, it seems, were the Chinese artists and management. If all the plans that have been hatched go well, then we'll be back very soon, doing something every bit as exciting... I just need to work it through in my mind!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Packed houses in China

I took the train down to Ningbo on Thursday, to meet up with Roshni Mooneeram and do a workshop for her students on the Nottingham University campus there. This is becoming a bit of an annual event - the last one was a riot. This year Roshni predicted there would be about 30 students there, of whom some would be too shy to take part. As it turned out, there were 150+, all of whom were desparate to act their socks off. Quite a challenge for a 90 minute workshop.

As with the Shanghai workshop last Sunday, I decided to work from images. It was fascinating to see what was in the psyche of these young Chinese people. The idea of shame was very strong - lots of images of an individual being harangued by the mob: the Cultural Revolution lives on.... There was one extraordinary scene in which a Western male student improvised a liaison with a Chinese prostitute: incredibly daring for a young Chinese performer. This girl, who calls herself "Ivy", turns out to be one of Roshni's most capable students, and gets the job of showing me a bit of Ningbo the next morning. She's very articulate - and wants to be a playwright. She's also very aware that it's virtually impossible to make a living that way. Her parents want her to switch to Business Studies. We wonder arond Ningbo's huge and beautiful lake, looking at old women washing clothes in its waters, and carrying them back into ramshackle old houses. They've probably lived here all their lives - and yet seen so much change.

Roshni had booked a bus to bring a student party up to Shanghai to see the show, so I travelled back with them. It was lovely to get chance to have long chat with Roshni - about the vagaries of working with China, about Dev Virahsawmy's newer plays, and about her developing critical ideas about cosmopolitanism. A much more alive and interesting approch than post-colonialism, which is, as she says, "a bit tired" as a theory now.

The show is entering its final weekend in Shanghai, and is selling out. Not that this means it's full - at least until half an hour into the show, when the last of the audience has finally arrived. I'm learning to accept the constant coming and going, the glow of the mobile phones, the chattering and the general lack of reverence. In fact, last night I became very aware of the fact that they weren't just talking - they were participating very actively in the performance, explaining to one another what was going on, or getting excited about images and ideas. What's more, the audience is going on a real journey with the play. By the second half, there is a palpable calm in the room, and an intensity of concentration and absorption which is all the more telling for being so uncharacteristic.

All of which is very gratifying.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Great Exhibition

The cover of our Shanghai programme features the logo of 2010 Shanghai World Expo, so I thought I should spend a day at the site. I am sorry to say that I found it repulsive. If ever there were evidence of the current moral, cultural and spiritual bankruptcy of the human race, this is it. The national pavilions take the cliches of their perceived identities and parade them with no sense of their history, geography or context, so that they become nothing but vapid branding for the government's attempt to attract Chinese investment. At times this is laughable - the moment when a video climaxes in the rising skyline of Shanghai to the tune of "Land of Hope and Glory" being one example, and the EU's "typical European day" ending with a restuarant, an opera and a football match is another - but at other times it is so deeply disturbing as to bring you close to tears. In the Australian pavilion, for example, there are some carvings on show in the indigenous style. They are devoid of context, presented as national branding, placed so as to encourage people to strike silly poses beside them and have their photos taken. The true worth of this art as the spiritual expression of a people is insulted. All considerations, it seems, must be dismissed beside the economic imperative.

The only pavilion with any hint of integrity (except possibly the British, which I didn't see, but Tony did and liked) is the UN one. Here at least there is no market force at work, and so there are gentle reminders of the Millennium Goals and our utter failure to meet them. There is no queue to get into this pavilion. On the other hand, the China Pavilion has a queue two hours long. On a Monday.

Given the emptiness of so much current cultural fare, I am finding the profundity of the Chinese audience's response to our work very remarkable. On Sunday, I led a workshop for about 30 people, mainly younger ones, at SDAC. The level of creativity on display was extraordinary. They very quickly grasped the idea of working without text, of improvisation, of starting from objects or images. There was a brilliant scene about basketball and group dynamics, a very funny one about people escaping from prison (interesting given the recent news), a disturbing one about people losing limbs, and at least two car-crashes. All done with a great deal of warmth and laughter. The resilience of human creativity never ceases to amaze me.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Liu Xiaobo

A very interesting moment to be in China.... The second the Nobel Peace Prize was announced, CNN and BBC World went dead in our hotel. There is, of course, no reportage in the local media, although it is still possible to find English news on line. The firewalls are definitely even higher than before, though.

From a purely selfish standpoint, we're hoping that the Chinese government's fury only extends to Norway (which by historical accident awards this particular prize), and not to the main Nobel country, Sweden. If it does, then we can forget the last leg of this project. I suspect we'll be OK. China is too pragmatic to be consumed with irrational fury these days.

Liu Xiaobo probably doesn't even know he's won the prize. Neither do the bulk of his countrymen. But it's a bold and powerful decision - far better than the token nod towards Obama for not being Bush last year, and much better than the travesties of awards to Henry Kissinger, Yasser Arafat and Menachim Begin. This is a man who has made it his life's work to strive towards human rights in China, and has sacrificed any semblance of a normal way of living to achieve that aim. Reading his speech from the dock, you cannot but be incredibly moved.

The strange thing is that his talk of liberation and human dignity is very similar to the rhetoric of the people who founded the PRC. Or at least some of them. Since I've been here, I've been reading Han Suyin's wonderful biography of Premier Zhou Enlai, and this morning I visited the former home of Soong Chingling. What I've been realising is that these two great figures were survivors from the intellectual end of the communist revolution, and that their vision and idealism was constantly undermined by Mao's insistence on the inherent wisdom of the peasantry. The contemporary Chinese mistrust of debate and engagement is not simply an authoritarian thing - it also goes back to the conflicts of the Cultural Revolution period.

So our work, aiming to provoke the audience into thinking for itself, is a very radical thing here. We are not presenting a piece which offers neat solutions and easy answers. We offer a range of possibilities. This may well bemuse many of the audience - but that fact is itself the proof of its necessity.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Opening in China

There's a scene in the show about a Swedish company having a very difficult technical rehearsal in Shanghai. Art has been blending with life for the last few days..... Much of the problem is language, of course - but it really didn't help matters when our video camera disappeared, when the person operating the supertitles only arrived on the day of the show, and when Lloyd cut his hand open to the bone and needed surgery..... !

Anyway - we got there, and finally reached the climax of two years' work last night, when we played to a packed house of Chinese people. It was, of course, a completely different experience from performing in London. To begin with, the piece seemed less funny and more elusive - the style was clearly something very new for them, and they took time to respond. Qi's scenes with Mia got the laughter going - and this led to a really powerful sense of emotion as the play moved into more specifically Chinese areas of concern. The montage of Sammy's family history was incredibly powerful - and so was the story of Tsrui-hua and the abandoned baby.

We'd had some discussion of the ending before the show. Nick Yu was concerned that it might be controversial - apparently a play was banned a few years ago for its portrayal of traditional rituals surrounding death. The powers that be decided that this was "encouraging superstition", and so not appropriate to the image of a modern, "progressive" society. As so often, China wrong-footed me: I'd have expected concern over references to sexuality, to the single-child policy and the Cultural Revolution - but I'd never imagined that a scene about spiritual tradition could be considered sensitive. But, of course, it is. And the reason I like the scene - its affirmation of the value of these practices for today - is exactly the reason why. In China, the spiritual is political.

We (by which I mean the Chinese actors and myself, consulting with Nick) decided that we should keep the scene as it stands. So we were very aware of the resonances when it began. Jue said her line about "In my country, people believe...", and started to show the rituals - and the laughter grew louder and louder. Laughter not of mockery but of recognition. Even of celebration. Delicious, joyous, celebration.

What a wonderful night.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Shanghai homecoming

The firewalls are high in China - so high that this post is being emailed to my friend Kate for posting. I'm used to not being able to read my blog in China - now I can't write it either. Neither can I use Facebook or Twitter. I suspect the regime got twitchy about Twitter after events in Iran. So those who follow Border Crossings, think of this as a clandestine despatch.

We've arrived here on planes from London, Bangalore and Gothenburg over the last couple of days, to be met by the smiling Tracy Lu (our SDAC project manager) and the vista of a city in the grip of Expo 2010. We drove past the Expo park on our way in from the airport - it's space age and packed to bursting. The Expo label is on our publicity, together with that of Starbucks (with a certain irony!). SDAC have been very clever. The poster has layers of photos from the show, rendered into psychedelic colours - so it's much more clearly aimed at a younger audience than our London one was. Lesson for the future.

Earlier in the week, I was thinking we were never going to get here. The shipping company Lloyd had asked to deal with our set freight turned out to be totally incompetent. I name no names..... but having taken the set to Heathrow on Sunday, it was fairly horrific to discover on Tuesday that it was still there, and that there was no prospect of it entering Shanghai for "several weeks". Lloyd and I drove to Heathrow on Wednesday, picked it up, demanded a full refund, and re-wrapped it so we could take it on the plane with us. We pitched up as a group of seven, with our cases, several rolls of mirrored dance floor, two long drapes and various cases of props. Amazingly, China Eastern Airlines were fine about the whole thing - as were Chinese customs. And with a huge sigh of relief we walked out into the Shanghai sunshine.