A tour of the contradictions of culture’s First City

It wasn’t only the sharp autumnal sunshine that made Beijing a riveting place to be last weekend. A surreal coincidence of events emphasised more strongly than ever the conflicting nature of modern Chinese culture. First, it was national holiday week, the annual commemoration of the 1949 revolution that never fails to bring flag-waving citizens to the city centre from all over China. As I skirted Tiananmen Square (sealed off from the public) I came across a family of nine, spanning four generations, taking in the sights. They had travelled from Mongolia for the occasion. Try as I might, I couldn’t actually find the occasion. There was no parade, no fireworks, no music. Just roadblocks, crowds and paper flags.

Meanwhile, not far from the would-be festivities, one of the centres of Beijing Design Week was making its presence felt. In Dashilar Alley, a historic hutong neighbourhood just south of the notorious square, there were pop-up shops selling extravagantly priced fashion and design items in small houses that were falling apart, in an elegantly wasted sort of way. Skinny Japanese women wearing Vivienne Westwood nudged past thick-set labourers dispensing globules of phlegm in all directions. There was friction, if not tension, in the air, and it was of course all the more fascinating for that.

Contemporary Chinese culture seems to be settling at some point between the unblinking patriotism and the hip finery. It is a fabulously broad spectrum, and you never know quite where you will land. I went to the beautiful National Centre for the Performing Arts, known colloquially as “The Egg”, to catch an opera. A fractured conversation with the box office ended with a recommendation to see The Chinese Orphan. I geared up for the alien sounds of traditional Chinese music, but heard instead an extended facsimile of Madama Butterfly’s cod-orientalism, without the loveliness of the tunes. The audience clapped the arias half-heartedly, but adored the epic reconciliation between father and son in the second half, and applauded it lustily: content better appreciated than form.

Across town, opposite the “Bird’s Nest” stadium (was “The Egg” found there?) I found a different vibe again, inside an intimidatingly large sports complex. No, this was not part of the Olympic legacy, at least not the one you would imagine; it had been built for Beijing’s failed bid for the 2000 Games. (With failures like these...) In an underground hall, the Beijing Dance Theater was putting its finishing touches to Haze, a new piece by choreographer Wang Yuanyuan that arrives at Sadler’s Wells in London on Thursday and then travels to New York.

Wang describes the work as a “creative response to the economic and environmental crises of 2009”, particularly the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. The three sections are divided into themes – “Light”, “The City” and “Shore” – which show a society in confusion. The first part, in which dancers periodically stretch upwards towards something that seems to evade them, was directly inspired by the earthquake. “Light was the thing that gave survivors hope,” says Wang as we sit down after the rehearsal. “It was what kept people going.”

The section on the city shows grids of busy commuters rushing and bumping each other, trying to make connections, to form relationships. In the final part of the piece, the dancers rush to the shore, teeter on the edge of an imagined precipice, and pull back, over and over. “They are trying to work out where it will be better to live, on the land or in the water,” says Wang. “They cannot make a decision.” The final image in the work shows all 19 dancers standing completely still as a thin snow-like layer of dust drifts over them.

I ask if she considers it a positive, or a pessimistic, conclusion. “After our performances in Beijing, we asked the audience how they felt, and some said it was very hopeful, others were very sad. I am open to either [interpretation]. There is enough space for the audience to decide for itself.” The work is also sufficiently abstract to adapt itself to different local contexts. After performances in Iceland, says Wang, the environmental impact of last year’s volcanic eruption was uppermost in the audience’s concerns.

Which raises the question, what issues are raised in China itself by this dance of bewilderment? Wang’s company has history with the Chinese authorities. Last year, its scheduled performances of The Golden Lotus, based on the Ming dynasty novel, having featured in the Hong Kong Arts Festival, were banned at the last minute on the mainland for their explicit eroticism. In truth, the work has throughout history been the victim of censors for its subject matter. But art always speaks of time and place, whether it wants to or not. Was the work too shrewd a metaphor for contemporary Chinese society, which appears to bloom peacefully, but which hides myriad social problems? Wang prefers not to comment.

For further signs of underground rumblings, I travelled to the Caochangdi art district, made famous by Ai Weiwei’s nearby home, where he remains under house arrest. At the Chambers Fine Art gallery, a giant sculpture by Zhao Zhao, a former assistant to Ai, is making a trenchant comment on the incarceration. It depicts the younger artist dressed in military uniform, collapsed from his plinth and shattered into pieces. The number on his shirt is significant: it is the date of Ai’s original arrest.

Ai was present at the exhibition’s opening, according to gallery director Simon Kirby, and the show’s catalogue features a compelling and gnomic conversation between the two artists. What happened to Ai after he was taken away by police on April 3 2011, asks Zhao? “I feel nothing happened, just like being hit by a closing door,” replies Ai. “This society doesn’t apply the same standards to everyone. Instead it belongs to certain groups of people. It might have always been like this, but it is more obvious in current society. It has been living in a state of dictatorship.”

Spend just a weekend in Beijing and you will find traces of just about every kind of artistic expression: the slavish copying of western fashion and brands; the pure and abstract forms of great choreography; biting comments on political repression. In a world which valorises the tumult of the melting pot metropolis, here is culture’s First City, where the heat is highest.

Beijing Dance Theater performs ‘Haze’ as part of the Out of Asia season at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, October 13-15, www.sadlerswells.com


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