So here I am, at the end of my MIRChina residency- five weeks of experiencing, absorbing, making and sharing in this south-west corner of China! And I hope these pages show a little of the powerful, rich, complex, challenging and wonderful experience it has been.
Though there were so many positives, there were times, especially at the beginning, when I wondered whether I could manage it. Parachuted alone into a completely unfamiliar culture, without, in my case, knowing the language and without of course knowing my future collaborators was tough. There was a lot of attention on my visit- a lot of excitement, expectation and profile. Every engagement I attended or visit I made, there were TV cameras and documentary film-makers. Sometimes people even filmed meetings on their mobile phones. And if I looked up during a performance, there’d be a solid wall of enthusiastic phone-holding audience-members recording the moment to post on WeChat and Weibo. The intensity of the spotlight took a bit of getting used to.
The cross-cultural dimension of the residency also made for a number of balancing acts. How was I going to navigate my cultural ambassador-type role on the one hand with my ambitions as a visiting artist? An ambassador is non-controversial, prioritising the fostering of good relationships over everything else. But an artist puts their work first, sometimes at the cost of offending people. The artistic dimension was made more complex by the culturally ‘other’ environment I was creating in: I was conscious of making music that both audiences and co-performers accustomed to different kinds of traditions would find acceptable, manageable and enjoyable. The last thing I wanted was a show that left the audience cold and which was totally alienating for my fellow performers to work on. I tried to tread a line between all these things and accept the necessary compromises.
Likewise, during my residency I questioned myself about the distinction between cultural sharing on the one hand and cultural colonialism on the other. My visit was definitely an exchange, and a really positive one, but when you come from a country like Britain, with its troubling colonial past, to a country like China, which seems to regard many Western things as aspirational, it is something you need to be sensitive to.
(A dinner with the British Consul-General in China and her team)
There is also a balance to be found between the exterior- the seeking and absorbing of inspiration from outside things- and the interior- the processing of these inspirations that in turn allows the work to be made. At first, the timetable for my visit was jam-packed with visits and meetings and workshops and concerts. It had been organised this way with the very best of intentions on the part of my hosts, who simply wanted me to experience Guiyang to the full. There’d been talk that some previous MIRChina residents had lacked a support system during their stays in China, and my hosts had simply wanted to do their very best in providing for me. But over my first few days, when I fully absorbed the reality of the schedule, I recognised it was going to be unmanageable and that I’d need to say something to change it so I had time to make work. But doing this was hard. Would I look like or turn into a bad guest who was rejecting invitations and new experiences?
I quickly realised during my residency too that sometimes, when something was suggested, it could rapidly- whether through enthusiasm, opportunism or the language barrier- turn into something that felt beyond my control. Things that were initially framed as small and informal could quickly transform into something more pressurising, with TV cameras, with larger audiences or attention, with more time spent etc. The improvisation with Guqin Master Wu was a good example of this. These experiences, in the context of the big culture shock and of being on my own, meant that I felt conscious of protecting my boundaries, of saying what I wanted, of saying what I would and wouldn’t agree to. In some ways this was positive, necessary, and a good lesson for me, but being too boundaried can risk cutting you off from people and from new experiences. This again underlined the importance of finding a balance.
Initially especially, in a new cultural environment, your head is crammed with questions. And the usual uncertainty that comes with making new art work is magnified tenfold by the cultural unfamiliarity. I felt very vulnerable at times, as my loved ones at home will testify! Things that later you understand the cultural context for, at first just seem totally overwhelming. For example, as I sat at my welcome dinner, straight off a 14-hour flight, my hosts, brim-full of enthusiasm and excitement about my arrival, said things like “Of course you will need an orchestra!”, “If the local dancers aren’t good enough, we’ll fly the best in from Beijing!” and “We will support the show to tour back to the UK if all goes well!”. They at this stage, were simply trying to show the warmest welcome they could muster, to convey a sense of honour and respect to me as their guest, in a way I understand now as being typically Chinese, and to reassure me that they had the means to support whatever I wanted to do, whatever scale of piece I wanted to make. They meant it in the best possible spirit. To me at that moment, though, having no sense yet of who I’d meet or what I’d make, it communicated as intense pressure and expectation, and left me quietly thinking “Yiiiiiiikes!”.
But part of what I’ll take away from this residency is how these kinds of challenges can transform into something profoundly positive. I saw, heard and did so many fantastic things during my time here- I listened to beautiful music I’d never heard before, I tasted delicious foods I’d never tasted, I took in the gorgeous countryside scenery, the colourful villages and the hustle and bustle of the city. And on top of these, crowning them all, was meeting and making friends with so many wonderful people. I feel humbled by the massive generosity shown me by my Guiyang hosts and friends. They gave everything to the residency- their time, their knowledge and skills, their money, their enthusiasm and energy. All the challenges of the residency came with the territory, and getting through them was part of the richness of the experience. My hosts were intelligent, sensitive people who always wanted the best for me, and it was amazing to see the wide common-ground opening up around us as we got to know each other. Making things together brought us together, gave us a rich sense of purpose and something to feel proud of at the end. The success of the final show came out of an enormous collective enthusiasm to create memories we could all cherish and friendships that would last. Reading my blog during my residency, a friend at home said she’d almost felt jealous. As a tourist in China, she’d never had the opportunities I’d had to become friends with people, to be so welcomed in, as I had been. I felt the truth of her words and know how lucky I’ve been. Whereas before, this country felt very different and very unfamiliar, now I know there are people I can pick up the phone to, people who are my friends.
As I’m sure is obvious from these words, there are many people to thank here in China for the amazing time I’ve had during my residency.
A massive thank you to Nancy, Andrew and Chase at C-Zone Hackspace, who were consistently generous with their time, workspace and resources. Open, flexible, helpful and friendly, I couldn’t have asked for better hosts for our devising week and final show. A brilliant team and a brilliant place! On the last day of rehearsals, Nancy gave me some C-zone treats, including a personalised set of laser cut glasses. So lovely!
A massive thank you too to Mr Zhi, my ‘music’ host who oversaw my introductions to people on the music scene in Guiyang, who found our venue, and who even hired an upright piano for the show- so much better than an unweighted keyboard, which was our only alternative. And he had the best car in the city! I won’t forget zooming along Guiyang’s highways in Mr Zhi’s lemon-yellow Ford Focus with “I wanna hold your hand” booming out of the car stereo. Thanks also to Mr Li and his team at Music Box studios, who gave me a space to work in one weekend and who lent me a keyboard while I was making my scores.
And a massive thank you to Mr Liao, Kerun’s colleague at Dade Bookshop. Unlike in the UK, independent Chinese bookshops are more like cultural hubs, always looking to support arts activities more generally, sometimes hosting events, often having a cafe attached. Dade was a great example of this and had Mr Liao and Kerun at its heart. Kerun revealed to me that it was Mr Liao who had first wanted to participate in the MIRChina scheme, and having got to know him during my visit, this doesn’t surprise me. Mr Liao was a warm, generous, convivial person, and his big network of contacts across Guiyang made the residency possible. And his 6-year old daughter Zimo whose voice featured in my soundscape for the show was a little gem!
And it was Mr Liao’s enthusiasm for drinks of all kinds that made our last evening together such a laugh! 20-year aged Moutai here we come!
Warm thanks also to lovely Jiali and Joanne of British Council China, always so interested and supportive, making sure I was being looked after and that things were working out how I wanted during the residency.
And big hugs to my volunteer interpreters, Jett and Yivamin and to Kerun’s friend and colleague, Daniel, who also did lots of interpreting for me. Jett and I first met discovering Guiyang’s best veggie restaurant, and had a heart-to-heart about life and love over the delicious food. Yivamin was larger than life and wore glamorously impractical shoes everywhere, sparkling her way through park hiking trails and getting her stiletto heels stuck in city pavement cracks at every other step. I met Daniel on my first day’s walk in Guanshanhu park, and loved hearing stories about his radical birthplace, Taiwan. It was Daniel who came on a secret mission with me to buy thank you gifts for everyone, it was Daniel’s design concept that informed the posters and banners for the show, and it was Daniel who took me for a lovely massage on my last morning in Guiyang. Jett, Yivamin and Daniel really helped me get a window onto Guiyang life that was outside the pressures of my work there. I really appreciated it.
And massive hugs too to the wonderful dancers and musicians, Wu Hong Zhi, Xie Shun, Xie Xiuxia, Hu Juanjuan, Cai Qi, and Tommy Yang, who worked with me to create and perform We Can Build Bridges. Each and every one, so brilliant and so unique! One day over a devising week lunch, one of the musicians asked shyly why I had invited them to be in the show. I said that I had seen that day at Ms Liao’s studio when we’d met that, as well as being lovely players and listeners, they’d been prepared to take a risk and to go on a creative adventure. I’m so glad I met them all and so happy they agreed to adventure in making a show with me. They are all stars!
And finally, the biggest thanks of all. To Kerun.
Right from my first meetings with Kerun in the UK back in December last year, I had a good feeling. He was smiley and enthusiastic, as well as being excellent at English. Following an initial discussion about the residency over dinner on the first day of his UK visit, he came to our meeting the next day with a powerpoint presentation full of local info about Guizhou province based on all the things I’d asked about. Throughout the lead-up to my visit, he was attentive to my emails and questions, always trying to provide me with useful tips to shape my visit. It was his face beaming over an enormous bunch of sunflowers at Guiyang airport when I first arrived and his thoughtfulness that meant I was so well-provided for when I first arrived. He’d bought English breakfast cereals, fruit, essentials like coffee, milk, salt and pepper, toiletries, crockery and chopsticks. He’d sorted a washing machine for the flat. He’d borrowed a yoga mat from his friend for me to use. And he’d painstakingly labelled everything I might not understand with English translations (including a shampoo called Rejoice which was too perfect!).
Throughout my residency, Kerun was always there- at the end of the phone if I needed anything, as a friend to spend days off with, as a translator during sessions or out and about, as a source of all sorts of info about Guiyang, Guizhou province, or China more generally. He smoothly put things in place behind the scenes when I’d consulted him about things I’d needed. He brought water and snacks for rehearsals. He printed music. He ordered taxis. He ordered food at group lunches. And none of these in a controlling way- it was always done in a way that took the burden from others, that took responsibility so that others could be free to think about other things. And when I was at all stressed, I never felt his judgement, only his anxiety to make things good again and to sort out any problems. He was a really safe pair of hands and I could totally trust him to take care of anything and everything. I worked hard during the residency, but Kerun also worked hard. And we made a great working team!
As well as this, my many conversations with Kerun were some of the most interesting I had during my time in Guiyang. We talked about everything- from politics to arthouse European film, from Confucius to what we ate for breakfast. Kerun was someone who was interested in things and had travelled quite a bit, both in and outside of China. His broadmindedness and intelligence made him a very nice person to spend time with. He was quite a proper person too, in a way, taking his professional role seriously, which made his pathological fear of mice all the funnier, and which made his blushing grins all the more endearing one day as Yivamin and I noisily discussed periods in the back seat of the car! He had a lovely sense of humour too and was always smiling.
And when he gave me a beautiful bag for my leaving pressie- complete with local batik and Miao-inspired silver decoration- well, that pretty much sealed the deal for me!
Thank you so much Kerun- for everything!
Goodbye Guiyang! Till next time!