One of the nice things about living and working in Beijing is that on a regular basis we “foreign experts” (as we are cutely referred to) are made to feel a little bit special by the State Administration of Foreign Expert Affairs – known by one and all as SAFEA. (It is SAFEA that is responsible for certifying foreigners to work in the Chinese mainland.)
So with May Day just around the corner it was no surprise that out of the blue came a circular from my HR department asking if I'd like to attend a ballet performance, courtesy of SAFEA. And sure enough, a folded red-on-cream card was handed over…
… complete with a ticket for what promised to be a grand evening of entertainment. I was to be sitting in the very front row on the ground floor from where I was bound to get an excellent view.
As usual, I made sure I would be there with plenty of time to spare (a hark back to my BBC days when you simply couldn't be late for a show). Already there was a buzz around the theatre – the Tianqiao Theatre to be precise. Memories came flooding back. I last visited this place maybe four or five years ago, by my reckoning.
The area has spruced itself up since those days – perhaps owing to the presence of Subway Line 7, which was only a twinkle in some planner's eye back then.
Around the courtyard in front of the theatre are some sculptures… this one represents 'Big Golden Tooth’ – alias Jiao Jinchi – who put on a peep show while singing a commentary… or so the legend goes.
This one is of ‘Simple and Honest Cheng’, who performed with a black bear and a ‘pagoda’ of bowls. He is known to have performed with 13 porcelain bowls, each picked out with a delicate flower design, piling them on his head while bending over in weird and wonderful positions. After his performance he would strike a bell and then play with the poor black bear.
But I’m not here to admire the sculptures. I join the throng of foreign experts and go through what passes for a body check (not that anyone is remotely interested in my body on this occasion – not even a pat on my bottom, as is so often the case when being checked on the Beijing Subway).
I pick up one of the programmes that are lying around …
… while admiring the efforts that someone has gone to in order to brighten up the foyer area.
It is then that I take a look at the back of the ticket, and squint at the small print (yes, it really is small – in order, I suspect, to make sure that nothing can possibly be left out.)
“Enter the field in turn” I am admonished. I see no field, but take this to mean the auditorium (wow, am I smart or what?). “Guns, ammunitions, controlled knives and other forbidden articles are not allowed to be carried; explosives are strictly prohibited.” Luckily I have no knives with me – controlled or otherwise – and likewise no guns or explosives. Phew!
“It is forbidden to carry the liquid articles to enter the field” the rules continue relentlessly. Hmmm, a slight problem here. I have a bottle of water with me. But I note that others too have refreshments with them, including bottles of coke and juice, so I decide to pretend I had just missed that little admonishment.
“Trampling the seat is prohibited… Please don't make a racket in the field.” Awww… the spoil sports!
I make a promise to myself to be ever such a good boy and walk to the front row to find my allotted place.
Above the stage is a banner proudly proclaiming ‘SAFEA’s Mayday special’. Visions of overhead aircraft and ships at sea desperately signalling for help come to mind…
But there are no aircraft, let alone ships at sea. Instead an expectant buzz as the audience take their seats.
On either side of the stage is a screen telling those, who were unfortunate enough to miss out on getting one of the free programmes, what is coming up.
But for those of us in the know, we turn the pages of the programme and find out that the performance will start with something intriguingly called ‘Chrysanthemum of the Choreartium Four Seasons’.
What’s a choreartium, I wonder. I flick on my iPhone and do a quick search… Wordnik.com appears immediately in the search engine:
Definitions: Sorry, no definitions found. You may find more data at choreartium.
Etymologies: Sorry, no etymologies found.
Hmmm… so it is not just your favourite blogger who is confused.
But the act is pleasant enough all the same. It is based on a syncopated version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, “recomposed” by Max Richter.
(I can’t help thinking how emaciated these poor ballerinas look. I doubt they have had a square meal in months, if not years. Talk about walking – or rather dancing – skeletons! Please.. someone… anyone… take these girls to the nearest KFC or McD after the show!)
A selection of Pas-de-quatre and Pas-de-deux follow on, including one intriguingly called “A l’heuer Qu’il Est” (sic) which is then translated as “Onece upon a time” (sic). Well, full marks for consistency, anyway!
It’s not just western ballet that is on show, however. We are also treated to extracts from ‘The Peony Pavilion’ and ‘Raise the Red Lantern’.
But the main show of the evening is a three-act ballet which is the premiere of ‘Love of Yimeng’.
This, we are told, celebrates the 90th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army and is based on a previous ballet called ‘Ode to the Yimeng Mountains’.
Lest we have difficulty working out what it is all about, a short sub-plot is printed out in the programme notes.
It’s all pretty grand stuff, starting with old black-n-white videos of happy peasants in the fields, switching to Chairman Mao exhorting the masses to do whatever it is he used to exhort them to do… and finally we get to see red flags being waved about by men who have discarded their tights and have instead dressed up in battle fatigues.
But wait… there is even more detail printed in the programme – a few words from the choreographer. “‘Ode to the Yimeng Mountains’ is based on the story that the Yimeng people fed the wounded soldiers with breast milk during the wartime… Later the story was adapted into a film, making the folk ballet a household name at that time… The theme song ‘Wish My Soldier Brother a Soon Recovery’ widely spread and has been sung until now.”
Visions of the soldiers sucking on the breasts of the village girls come to mind, but for some reason this part of the plot has been left out of the performance.
Finally, though, it is all over bar the shouting.
The crowds surge out into the warm night air, and the Tian Qiao theatre is left clearing up after another evening’s performance.
Thank you SAFEA! This foreign expert had a good time this evening.
But I’m still none the wiser what a choreartium is.