Audience behaviour remembered

It’s been more than two months since I returned from Beijing and Dancross but, as has been expressed elsewhere on this site, I also feel that it was an utterly unforgettable and privileged experience. Ironically, perhaps, I still think of some of the things I didn’t get to do. Yes, I visited the Confucius Temple but not the nearby Lama Temple. Yes, I went to the Summer Palace but not the Yuanmingyuan ruins, despite their proximity. And I was just that bit too late for the date I was hoping to have with Mao’s embalmed corpse! It lies in a Memorial Hall in the middle of Tiananmen Square, a vast and highly visited piece of land surrounded on all sides by white barriers and hardly my favourite spot in Beijing. Well, presumably Mao’s remains are not going anywhere soon, so I may yet be able to have that rendezvous with him at some point down the road….

I am of course hugely pleased with all I did manage to see and do, both in terms of tourism and – my main reason for being in Beijing – dance. In early November I’d meant to include in my Danscross blogs the words of Janet Smith, artistic director of Scottish Dance Theatre. The company was touring China at the time. I attended a lecture-dem led by Smith at Peking University (a campus worth exploring, especially for its pond and lake) and featuring Caroline Bowditch, Scotland’s Dance Agent for Change (and such a bright, talented and sexy woman). The night before I’d been to the concert hall of the Central Conservatory of Music to sample a bit of World Music Days. This was the title of a four-day symposium focusing on an exchange between Chinese culture and that of New Zealand and surrounding regions. The evening opened with music by a venerable yet still wonderfully lively male percussion ensemble from western Hunan province who, in 2006, were designated a National Intangible Cultural Heritage. This was followed by songs and dances from a small group of Maori artists. The audience seemed appreciative, but they were also undeniably distracting – and distracted – if the pockets of fairly low-key chat were any indication. Worse, to my mind, was their use of mobile phones (at least to text rather than talk or photograph) even as the show was happening. I was especially taken aback at this very same behaviour coming from two of my Chinese guests, a dancer and his teacher both of whom are connected to the BDA. I wondered — but did not ask — how they would like it if people were texting during their performance. But who can say, maybe they wouldn’t mind one bit. Different country, different customs.

The above is a prelude to an email Smith sent me later that week, which I’ve cut and pasted with only a few minor corrections in spelling: ‘The Chinese audience experience is something you must witness,’ she wrote. ‘The first 15 minutes is like Charing Cross at rush hour, but in a blackout, since they insist on starting bang on time but also letting in latecomers. Then the flash photography and videoing lights up auditorium and stage, along with cell phones (people texting, making shopping lists?). Then a little man in a uniform tries to counter-attack the photographers by sending an infra-red beam of light towards them. This crisscrosses over peoples’ heads and bounces off the walls of the auditorium. There is the constant clicking of high heels as ushers come and go with yet more latecomers, along with the clicking of cameras and the constant murmur of people talking to each other at normal volume. Somewhere beyond the chaos, surrounded by equally disturbing traffic backstage, the dancers focus for their lives and do that beautiful thing that dancers do when they take us to another world.’ Neatly stated and, crazy as it seems, I miss it now that I’m thinking about it, and about being in Beijing.

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