Final week: devising the show

Throughout my residency, I’d felt excited about this final week- that it would see all of the things I’d made and experienced, all the of amazing people I’d met, somehow come together. The hard graft of score-making would be over, the uncertainty about who would perform in the show or where the show would take place would be resolved. Final week was about bringing all the ingredients together and making something fantastic. It was about collaborating and experimenting. It was about play!

On day 1, the musicians met to have a play through the music. And to my relief, it all worked out and they loved it!

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The dancers needed no encouragement when they came in on day 2, improvising to the music we were making and experimenting with the copper-tape trigger flooring. Having worked in a cluster on day 1, I encouraged the musicians to explore the space, take their stands to other places and experiment with other vantage points. Gradually we began to spread out and find the potential in the venue. The dancers moved with such beautiful instinctiveness and the musicians explored the music with real commitment and expressiveness. It was so exciting to witness the material coming alive and the piece beginning to take shape as we progressed through the week.

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It was at times a challenging week, which was to be expected. Devising with a completely new group with whom you don’t share a common language is hard work. Though the fantastic Kerun was always on-hand to interpret, it was hard to feel spontaneous or fluid sometimes, as communication was stilted by the need to translate. I was also adjusting to the character of the group as I got to know them, to see where they wanted to go- or were comfortable going- performance-wise. All the time I was recalibrating what I thought we could achieve in the final piece- what kinds of improvisation the musicians were going to feel comfortable with in the final show, whether movement by the non-dancers was going to work and if so, what kind, how I could encourage the group to open up and collaborate rather than just wait for direction by me, what material to include and what to jettison etc. My leadership and communication skills were definitely tested! But the group totally came through for me- taking risks and doing things they’d never done before, asking important questions, working hard, volunteering ideas, adjusting to changes as we went along and generally going for it! I felt so proud of us all.

We also had our share of technical issues. Apart from the cellist, Tommy, none of the musicians had worked with amplifying their instruments before, so on soundcheck day I explained what they should expect- what a soundcheck was, what monitoring is for etc. We were also going to be using radio mics to enable us to move around and dance with our instruments. Since we were performing in a non-conventional venue, a PA had had to be installed especially. However, when the PA arrived, the sound was bad, issues with the transmitter meant the radio mics kept cutting in and out, one of the monitors didn’t work, and the sound engineer was a little too much ‘in the background’, even when feedback was howling through the building. Though it took time to resolve, everyone was extremely patient. The musicians sat together chatting, looking at their phones, or practising tricky corners in the music. The dancers stretched and rehearsed some movements. Even though they are all busy people, with lots of other work they had to do during the week, teaching, performing, or parenting tiny babies- not a single person complained and even looked grumpy. That’s one thing I’ve noticed about the people I’ve met in Guiyang- may be it’s a Chinese thing- but nobody makes a fuss, everyone just gets on with it, with no drama. It’s great to have a team like this. Kerun and Mr Zhi meanwhile rallied around to sort a replacement PA and engineer, and by late Thursday morning we were cookin’ with gas! The sound was great, the new engineer was great and really attentive, and we were on track again.

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I was so grateful to C-zone again for allowing us to devise and rehearse in their fantastic space. It meant that any problems could be resolved well ahead of time and there would be less risk of last-minute panics on show-day.

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Day by day, as things fell into place, I was able to make a final edit of the soundscape and flesh out the timeline of the piece. We’d rehearsed the opening to the show- how we all were to come onstage. We’d rehearsed our exit at the end. And we’d rehearsed the main elements of music and dance that fell in between. By Thursday I was able to introduce the re-edited soundscape and we worked on bringing everything together. I was relieved and delighted when, in a first run-through with the musicians, everything- timings, positioning etc- worked, and we made it to the end in one piece!

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It wouldn’t have been a week with Guiyangers without a few delicious meals thrown in- and we were an army that definitely marched on our stomachs! It was good to get out of the venue each day and sample the local eateries. As well as communal space, Chinese restaurants often have a number of private rooms, usually with the obligatory mah jong table in the corner. The dining tables are large and circular, with a ‘lazy susan’ in the middle for maximum food-sharing potential! They’re really relaxing spaces to be in- almost like you’re at someone’s house, except you get waited on which means all you have to do is eat, drink and chat. Our week together coincided with China’s Dragon Boat Festival national holiday, and I learned that Guiyangers mainly celebrate this by EATING! A particular treat of this holiday is the ‘zong zi’ a parcel of sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves or reeds. Sometimes there is meat inside, sometimes fruit. Sometimes you dip the rice in a dry chilli mixture, sometimes in sugar, and then you eat it like a lolly, holding it on a stick. Yum.

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My lovely gang of musicians- from left to right: Xie Xiuxia (clarinet), Tommy (cello), Cai Qi (violin) and Hu Juanjuan (piano):

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And so, finally, tomorrow is show-day! The culmination of a lot of wonderful experiences and a lot of work here in Guizhou province. The theme of the show is bridges and is entitled We Can Build Bridges, from the saying ‘Why build walls when we can build bridges?’. As I look around me from this little-known city in southwest China, I’m conscious of how many walls and borders are being reinforced in the world today, how many nations are choosing to strike connections with others and go solo, how much ‘othering’ is going on. The MIRChina scheme, in allowing ordinary people from different places to make connections with one another, feels like a kind of bridge, as is art-making in general- a passage into a different way of seeing, a way to build and not to break.

As I considered a theme for the show in my early weeks here, the idea of the bridge felt suggestive in relation to my residency specifically too. The Dong villages’ ‘Flower Bridges’ I’d walked along in Xiao Huang, for example, I’d read “not only serve as passageways connecting two separate land areas, but also provide local residents with places to meet, relax, socialize, exchange views, and even amuse”. The idea of the bridge is not only historic and symbolic but also an urban reality for people living in today’s fast-developing Guizhou province. Every time I race in a taxi towards downtown Guiyang, I pass along and see many of the city’s newly constructed bridges, linking all the outer districts to the centre.

I hoped with the show also to express the idea of the bridge in the very performance craft and musical method of the piece. For one thing, all the performers share the stage as equals, interacting with one another, and all wearing equivalent costumes. And as a shift from the classical music training that can isolate players from one another and turn them into anxious competitive robots, musical improvisation and playfulness which connects players is foregrounded. The ‘electronic interfacing’ part of the piece, where the dancers trigger sounds by touching each others’ skin, represents another kind of bridge, another way of connecting to make something beautiful.

And when I was first shown around our venue, C-zone, which houses innovating designers surfing Guiyang’s new tech wave, I saw that this too was a kind of bridge- into an exciting and creative future for this city and for China as a whole.

Whatever happens on show-day, I know that during these weeks of meeting and making we have created something very special together.

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