In 2008, the eyes of the world turn to China as it hosts the Olypmics. That’s not just a sporting occasion; it’s also an opportunity to promote cultural links and stake a position on the world stage. Beijing’s new National Grand Theatre (dubbed ‘the Egg’) is as awe-inspiring as its Olympic stadium (‘the Bird’s Nest’). On the streets, posters urge taxi drivers to learn some English, while information campaigns prime them on how they should behave with foreigners. China has already opened its economic borders; cultural borders are necessarily opening as well, and arts companies increasingly position themselves within a global context.
But modern China also has a very particular cultural history. During the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), arts and tradition were rigorously controlled or forbidden, according to Communist Party diktats. Even now, as China races towards the future and looks out towards the world, it also looks inwards and backwards, recovering its own heritage and history. It’s a balancing act that can easily make you lose your bearings altogether.
In September 2007, the National Ballet of China staged their celebrated communist ballet Red Detachment of Women as part of the ‘soft’ opening of the National Grand Theatre. When I visit Beijing in early October, they’ve just returned from Mexico, performing their current global hit, Raise the Red Lantern, based on imperial legend. Is this communism for the glitteringly consumerist national theatre, and imperialism for the global stage? The dancers are unfazed, but I need some help to put me in the picture.
Thankfully, I snatch a conversation with independent Japanese arts manager Hisashi Itoh, who illustrates the conundrums of the ‘market system’ with a story from the Buddhist Shaolin Temple in Henan province, the home of kung fu. ‘After international film starts like Jet Li, not only foreigners but also young Chinese wanted to learn kung fu. There are now 80 kung fu schools around the Shaolin Temple, with some 50,000 students,’ says Itoh. Each school has a travelling company, and some tour both China and the world. ‘And if the Shaolin Temple monks say we are the original, the presenters say, that’s great – but those people are cheaper. This is the market system. It can bring benefits. As the same time, you can die in it.’
And there’s something else, too, about the eyes of the world being on China. ‘China, India, Japan,’ says Itoh. ‘I always feel they try to perform what western people expect. The National Ballet of China was struggling in the international market because no one was interested in their Swan Lake. But now they have Raise the Red Lantern, which is very “Chinese”. So the National Ballet of China got an identity. And now everyone wants a follow-up.’
However distinct their performing style, both the National Ballet and Shaolin Temple feel pressure both to maintain and to forge exportable identities. Can they sell themselves without selling their souls? They are certainly both exploring new possibilities: for 2008 each institution has chosen to collaborate on innovative projects with a leading European dance choreographer – the National Ballet with London-based Akram Khan, the Shaolin monks with Belgian Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.
On my return from China, I met both Khan and Cherkaoui in London, where they were performing their duet Zero Degrees. They make an odd couple, though they share some common ground: both are in their early 30s, and from European Muslim backgrounds: Khan British-Bangladeshi, Cherkaoui Flemish-Moroccan. But the differences are far more striking. Khan is compact and grounded, Cherkaoui as slim and limber as a sapling. Khan trained in the Indian classical dance style kathak, and later contemporary dance, while Cherkaoui emerged from the Belgian company Les Ballets C de la B, renowned for its eclectic mix of dance, theatre and music.
Their new Chinese projects are also strikingly different and oddly connected. Khan’s bahok is a collaboration with dancers from the National Ballet of China, who join dancers from his own company (we spoke before the Beijing premiere in January). As Khan explains, he had been working on a cycle of three duets and wanted to go back to doing a company piece; and because his duet Sacred Monsters had been with ballerina Sylvie Guillem, he wanted to work with ballet dancers. ‘I’m from a classical training,’ he explains, ‘so I’m always fascinated with classical forms. In many ways ballet is the opposite of kathak, and yet they share something – a sense of discipline, a sense of precision. Sylvie has such an amazing technique. And because I was a little afraid of that technique, I wanted to delve into it more.’
And why the National Ballet of China (NBC)? ‘I had already done a big piece for Cloud Gate Dance Theatre in Taiwan,’ says Khan, ‘and I wanted to work more with Chinese dancers. Also, there are lots of connections between China and India, right back to religions and migrations between the two countries. Today, there are real similarities: they’re changing at great speed, but both have this double vision, a balancing act between tradition and modernity. And it’s an unstable balance.’ NBC’s artistic director Sonia Zhao agreed to Khan’s proposal. The company, a bastion of classical work, had already begun working with modern ballet, and she felt it would also benefit from experiments with contemporary choreography. So four dancers started work with Khan’s company, with composer Nitin Sawhney writing the music.
Meanwhile, Cherkaoui teamed up with British sculptor Antony Gormley for his new piece Sutra – also working with Chinese performers, the martial arts monks who practise Shaolin kung fu. The connection came through Itoh. ‘Hisashi started to notice how I felt about movement, dance, life,’ says Cherkaoui. ‘I’ve been vegetarian for 16 years, I don’t drink or smoke. It’s not religion, it’s more like a moral way that works for me. And Hisashi said: you’re almost like a Shaolin monk!’ Itoh knew that the Shaolin Temple was looking for artistic collaborations, and suggested the idea to Cherkaoui.
Cherkaoui was more than interested. ‘The Shaolin monks are among my idols,’ he enthuses. It’s not just the vegetarianism and the spirituality, it’s also a way of thinking about the body. ‘In Europe,’ he says, ‘we think that everything comes from the brain, and the body is just a tool. Even dancers tend to think only in terms of bones and muscles. And I say no, it’s also your breath, your stomach, your organs. And your emotions – when you feel bad, or happy, or sad – it’s all in the organs, it’s hardly in the brain. The monks are so aware of that.’ But there’s something more personal going on here too. In contrast to Khan, who exudes a sense of centredness, Cherkaoui seems unsettled, wandering. ‘I hope this project will change me,’ he says. ‘I really hope so. In every project I do there is both a desire to discover something and to run away from something I can’t define. I need to find new things, and at the same time I think that I’m looking for me.’
Feeling out of place is what happens when you travel, and it brings both freedoms and frustrations. Wouldn’t the Chinese ballet dancers, I asked Khan, feel out of place in a multinational contemporary company? Wasn’t there an invisible faultline between them and the other dancers? ‘The purpose of my first workshops was to eliminate that line,’ he says. All the participants were asked to tell their own personal stories. ‘The dancers really revealed themselves. Some of those stories were very, very disturbing. And at the end of the we were so close it was like a family. Once we started to really listen to each other, there was only an us.’
At the end of the workshops, the germ of Khan’s idea began to emerge. ‘The piece is not about China – it’s about these nine individuals, some of whom are from China. It’s about how we feel at home, and away from home. And about how we communicate – because I became fascinated by language, and translation. The translator is always negotiating the words, choosing what is relevant to say. So you go into Chinese whispers.’ This was the key to the central metaphor of the piece: the carrier. ‘The title of the piece, bahok, means carrier in Bengali,’ says Khan. ‘There are so many different kinds of carrier: there is language of course. And you carry your memories of home, you carry your connection to home – your mobile phone. And in another sense, your home is your body, because you carry it around with your everywhere. And the body is also a carrier of disease.’
Physically, Khan is not interested in changing ballet dancers into contemporary performers, but in how they ‘carry’ his ideas. ‘Sometimes I think I’m giving a very clear instruction, and it gets translated into something completely unexpected. That’s happened so many times. But I work with that. I don’t want to restrict the transformation – that would be dishonest about the whole idea of the piece. Chinese ballet dancers are already adding something of their own to ballet. There is something very powerful but at the same time delicate and sensitive to their dance. They have both attack and stillness.’ That sense of embracing dualities is, Khan says, ‘a very Asian quality. There’s something very martial arts about that.’
Which brings us back to kung fu. Cherkaoui’s own company is a disparate, multinational and diversely talented group of performers. ‘Even when the monks learn the same sequences, each one will do it differently. The individual always emerges.’ Instead of talking about communication, Cherkaoui discusses emotion and empathy. When he first met Master Shi Yen Da at the temple, Cherkaoui was conscious of the distance between them. ‘Then in his room the first thing I see is little, little cat, it was so cute. I said: is this your cat? And he said: yes – I take care of it. And so I saw this very serious young man, and this tiny cat – and I felt this sense of tenderness and affection. Emotions have a way of coming through, like water always finds its own way through rocks.’
Cherkaoui isn’t looking for phenomenal displays of kung fu acrobatics. ‘Sometimes the monks would demonstrate a flashy sequence. And they’d say, this is something we do for audiences, to show off. They have traditional forms which are much more subtle and small. They don’t usually show them because they’re not impressive for audiences. But I think a lot of people will find this so subtle and articulate – like words that you never heard before.’
Artistic projects such as these are often talked of as ‘cultural exchange’, like traffic on a two-way street. But it’s clear from these conversations that the traffic is just part of a whole network of motives and desires. I leave China with an image of three National Ballet dancers from Khan’s project – Meng Ning Ning, Wang Yitong and Zhang Zheng Xin – who I’d met after class. The piece is certainly difficult for them, the process far outside their usual experience. And I myself was finding translation a frustrating medium. But water finds a way through rocks. I sense that if they’re confused by this project, by its intersections between cultures and languages and motives, they’re clearly also very much enthused. How could I tell? Their eyes shine.