Monday, 28 October 2013

A few performances, a few thoughts on Canadian cultural diplomacy

Friday, October 18: Evening

Tonight is the official opening ceremony of the 15th China Shanghai International Performing Arts Festival. We are taken by bus to a miraculous downtown theatre: a marble and glass cultural palace with thrilling architecture and about 2000 seats. 

Shanghai Cultural Square (Photo: Kreun Ip)

The interior is a bit overdecorated, and the show starts with a hierarchy of speeches. Names are read of most distinguished guests (party members, politicians).

China SPAF opening ceremony: the affable and fabulous hosts

The hosts are affable and fabulous. They introduce someone who introduces someone else who introduces someone else who declares the festival open. Each speaker speaks from a different part of the stage (including, at one point, from a microphone on a stand decorated with plastic flowers), with the final, most important speaker, finally, using the podium. Each speaker is greeted by a loud fanfare of classical music over the sound system as they approach the stage. Once the formalities are over, the curtain falls, and what I imagine to be a small army of technicians installs a floor and set for the Ballet of Monte Carlo, who are about to dance Swan Lake. 

It's a terrific company. The dancers are exquisite. The choreography is new, blending modern movement with pointe work. After some initial worries I become captivated by the piece.

The Ballet of Monte Carlo bows

As at every performance I attend, there are cameras in use throughout. People talk. People come and go. People read their smartphones. The Chinese audience norm is not something we from the West are used to - or perhaps we are used to it only in the context of a youth audience. Someone theorizes that during Mao, meetings of more than three people were prohibited, so the theatres became a place to talk. I'm not sure if this is true, or simply speculation, but it certainly makes sense.

The one conspicuous missing component is an orchestra, and the absence of live music in such a sumptuous theatre at an opening ceremony seems strange.

Saturday, October 19

Today I skip the morning session and go to explore the former French Concession neighbourhood south of where I'm staying. I find there a web of little alleyways crammed with wonderful and eccentric shops, with cafes, and with many tourists (most of whom are Chinese). I get a latte and blog.

Former French Concession Alleyway

Former French Concession Alleyway

Back at the Festival base (the Hotel Intercontinental), I have lunch with an Australian, an Israeli and another Canadian. 

I think Canada has the largest contingent of foreigners here - buoyed entirely by the Quebec contingent, a group of about 10 from CINARS and various performing arts companies and agencies. Quebec has admirably rushed to fill the vacuum left by the Harper government's utter withdrawal from using culture as a diplomatic tool. Now, where Canadian embassies offer no support to visiting artists, Quebec consulates do. I think I am the sole representative of English Canadian theatre here.

The afternoon is filled with short musical showcases of Chinese artists (and a few foreign artists). I sit in on some wonderful music. There is one man who plays a traditional Chinese stringed instrument like Ry Cooder - a virtuosic blend of musical influences at play. Another group sounds incredibly Celtic in sound, although singing traditional songs in Mandarin.

 Ma Xiaohui, playing the Erhu (she is famous - and played on the Crouching Tiger soundtrack)

 Wild Children - a folk group 

Martin Feng, virtuosic

Axel Anderson and Simon Issat Marainen from the Samic group ARA

 It's a great afternoon.

Things go horribly amiss in the evening. We are all bused to RAW - a program of works from young, emerging Chinese artists. We see three pieces. They are dreadful. There is a collective instinct to escape. Afterward, I join the directors of the Sydney Theatre Company, the Melbourne Theatre Company, and a few other Aussies AD types at an Italian resto close by, where we marvel at what's just happened. We're joined shortly by the National Theatre of Scotland, and folks who run things in Chile and Denmark, and Latvia and Singapore. I wonder how all the adults involved in choosing and overseeing the work we've just seen could possibly have thought it was beneficial to China, or to these young artists, to showcase this work to artistic directors from around the world. I doubt anyone here will go to the RAW events tomorrow.

What I miss this evening across town is the big event: Canada's National Arts Centre Orchestra is playing under the baton of Pinchas Zukerman. A fleet of VIPs has come with it, including the Governor General and Laureen Harper. So I guess our PM does still see culture as a tool, but only at the high end with the occasional big flashy event.

It's a bust of a night. But I adore the company of the Aussies!

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