We Can Build Bridges: film & evaluation

For everyone who didn’t see the final show (as well as those who did 🙂 ), here’s a short film of We Can Build Bridges. What a special and memorable day it was! And underneath, gathered for me by the brilliant Kerun, are the thoughts and reflections of some of the participants and audience members.

Big thanks again to everyone, Qx

“Yes, we can build bridges! Starting from music, Quinta built bridges between cultures, ethnic groups and histories. From segregation in Little Yellow, to freedom in White Bird, to communication in Clock Out, bridges were gradually and implicitly constructed during 20 minutes’ performance. Elements from Guiyang daily life were wisely blended in the work and interpreted by western classical music. To my surprise, the improvisation part with audience went so well that the audience wouldn’t want to leave. Thank you Quinta for devising such an unconventional show and the audience for embracing new experiments in art representation.”

Zhang Kerun (MIRChina main host)

“It is crucial to allow ordinary people from different places to make connections with each other. Quinta’s residency will be the beginning of her long-term relationship in music and wider cultural exchanges between the UK and Guizhou. Music is great!”

Chen Bing (Director of British Council Chongqing Office)

“Quinta’s newly composed work is so narrative with mesmeric melody, which inspired the dancers to devise an unforgettable choreography. The collaboration between Quinta’s music and the best contemporary dancers in Guizhou is ground breaking; the collaboration is both an excitement and inspiration for local artists and audience.”

Zhi Zhi (We Can Build Bridges Show Curator)

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“I felt the beauty within the experimental exploration and freedom of artistic creativity that was given by Quinta. It was important to take Bunny (my baby) to the venue. Even though she couldn’t understand, she could feel the beauty from the lingering melody. The show was so amazing. The music was so beautiful that I nearly cry. Quinta’s music make me feel connected to the universe.”

Cao Yutong (Co-CEO of We Can Build Bridges venue, C-zone Hackspace)

“Musician Quinta applied Makey Makey and Max MSP to the interactive flooring. When dancers performed on it, they triggered sound of Lusheng by touching of skins. This is a good example of combining sensibilities of art and rationalities of technologies, bringing new perspective of creativities and forms of artistic presentation. A fantastic performance from Quinta. I’m so inspired.”

Yu Chuan (Co-CEO of We Can Build Bridges venue, C-zone Hackspace)

“The final performance was really impressive and fantastic. The scene was beautiful, the lights were just like the gentle afternoon sunshine falling through the whole performance space. Under the lights, I saw how concentrated and focused the performers were. The dancers and musicians were integrated together with the flow of music. They wore custom performance suits with wires and bottle caps etc. It was a unique concert. I like Little Yellow best. I was quite touched by the tone and the melody of the music saw, which sounded like a lady telling people her serendipitous story in a special way. People loved it and someone even told me that she was so touched that she almost cried. The musical patch also impressed me. There were some conductive tapes and electronics on this patch so that dancers could also be a part of the music during their dancing. That’s amazing because it was totally a new way of music performance and it was the most creative concert I’ve ever seen. The dancers and musicians did a great job during the performance. The quick music together with the expressive dancing of the dancers won showers of warm applause from the audience. I witnessed most of the rehearsals. The devotion and determination of Quinta really moved me. You can see and feel how absorbed she is in her musical world. Quinta combined her music together with the local elements: the calling on the Guiyang streets, the sounds of iron forging, the square dancing
. all those reminded us of the growing Guiyang city. They were happy during the rehearsals. Discussion, repeated practicing, musical communication
. it seemed to be a laborious process but they did it in joy. They were having fun and experimenting together during the process. In all, the performance was great and I was quite inspired. I hope Quinta will come here soon to discover more about the city and her music!”.

Nancy Lee (Venue Liaison, We Can Build Bridges venue, C-zone Hackspace)

“Quinta, I appreciate that you bring such a beautiful music and touching performance to Guiyang! It’s my pleasure to take part in the project!”

Daniel Chien (MIRChina interpreter and We Can Build Bridges marketing planner)

We Can Build Bridges was performed on June 3 and was the end of the program, but it’s as if everything continues, like our friendship, and my mind stretching out with the inspiration of new music. At the beginning of rehearsals, the five musicians are not very familiar with each other, or even strangers. With the two dancers, the seven of us come from a common piece of heaven and earth, yet are different individuals in different styles. But each of us with our different personalities joined together and comprised a diversified team. We are so lucky to find the innate common attributes in such short a time. An impressive part is played by improvisation- we no longer have faces fixed on the notes of a score, but use our imaginations, inherent in musical innovation, creating new melodic lines within a structure. I left my seat when I played the clarinet in the latter part of Little Yellow, interacting with the dancers, eventually showing something harmonious and full of personality and musical expression. It’s like life- it appears to be calm but there will always be unexpected things. I never experienced before, we five musicians and two dancers, no longer bound to different cultural backgrounds and lifestyles, brought together from the distance. Between music and us, between dance and music, music and culture, as well as our relationship with the audience, here there is a link- there is a bridge”.

Xie Xiuxia (We Can Build Bridges clarinettist)

“After a week of intense rehearsal, we worked together to complete the history of Guizhou and it can be said to be the most exciting music show. With Quinta’s creation of the spectrum, I was so amazed at such a short time, you can bring all the Guizhou national characteristics of the temperament and points to be so in place. When we play, we can clearly feel the meaning and feeling you want to express. It makes me very excited and happy. I am a very perceptive person. When playing White Bird, in fact, I have been touched several times to tears. White Bird is a very good interpretation of the Chinese elements. Guqin’s rhythm and essence in a few simple sounds shows most vividly! This is very rare in the Chinese works I have played. I want to show you the highest respect! It is a pleasure to play your creative work. It lets my mind get a lot of baptism and rebirth. Little Yellow and Clock Out are also very in place to interpret the elements of the Dong and Lusheng. Clock Out, I also feel conveys the Scottish style of music. I think it was so great and wonderful. So wonderful melody, can direct our hearts. We are very happy to work with you! In the rehearsal process, we are also very grateful to you for taking care of us, being very tolerant of us, containing our many mistakes. The final performance, the results were very successful. After the show, the audience specifically came to find me, said: “I really want to thank you! You are great! We were moved to tears!”. It’s the best music in the world! The performance perfectly connected (built the bridge) with the audience. I felt so honoured to perform in such an amazing work and meet new friends. For that moment, all the efforts became motivation that keep me pursuing music, classical or experimental. Because music connects people. Through music, any intricate emotion can be illustrated and influences us all. Although we had a very short time together, I am reluctant to end after having to face the separation. I felt deeply, and benefited from it. First of all, thanks to Quinta for choosing me as a pianist. I am flattered, but also deeply honoured! Secondly, thanks to Quinta for teaching us so much experience on the show and passing to us such wonderful and interesting music concepts, opening our horizons and vision. I learnt so much, such as skills to devise and interpret music. I repeatedly listen to your CD, every time there will be different feelings and new inspiration. Finally, I sincerely wish Quinta all the best! Peace auspicious! But also sincerely hope to have the opportunity to meet with Quinta. I once again warmly welcome you to come back to China, then Guiyang. I would like to review my English as well. Haha. In addition, if the three works were recorded as a CD, then, it will definitely be very popular! As the best memories of life! Thanks dear Teacher Quinta! Love you ❀”

Hu Juanjuan (We Can Build Bridges pianist)

“Remembering the first time in the studio I see Quinta, I am very nervous, nervous to say anything. I played a little bit of difficult chamber music (from the beginning of a Debussy trio). I later learned that Quinta chose me to participate in the performance because of the improvisation we did- that was the first time I did this kind of performance and was a bit helpless. I did not expect to be selected and was very excited but very nervous.  Because some of my technical problems I was worried that my mistakes will affect everyone. Quinta is a very patient musician- I did not feel any pressure and was fully relaxed with her. When we rehearse, she has been encouraging us, saying that it is great! Every time after she encouraged us, we are full of confidence. In these days of rehearsal, I saw Quinta’s body emitting the light, playing the violin and making wonderful sounds, playing with the dance posture like a smart little elf! She rehearsed with great care about our feelings- when I was not well she take special care of me! Gave us a lot of rest time! The most happy thing is that we play Clock Out together when we finally dance around in a circle. Quinta very love circle, looks very cute! I love to jump and squat, but sometimes it is very clumsy. When we ate together is also very pleasant, and Quinta sent us a lot of photos! In the show we watched the screen playing Quinta’s interview and some of her performance clips, and I was very moved. She left the small gifts and cards on each of our music stands- very touched! I know she walked step by step. The process is very hard for music, for art creation. From her I learned a lot, including teamwork- we work together to complete one thing, listen to each other to adjust, seemingly simple is difficult. And Quinta has a kind of vitality- I think she must love music, love creation! She never looks tired- that kind of focus is worth learning. And through rehearsals and performances I think she is very humble and love to encourage us, without her encouragement to believe in ourselves, it would be difficult to do this show. Thank you very much! Hope we can keep in touch! Look forward to Quinta come again to Guiyang!”

Cai Qi (We Can Build Bridges violinist)

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“Beauty can be presented in a simple method ie a less decorated warehouse- the set design successfully embodied the concept of building bridges. Five weeks is more than enough to grasp the essence if you genuinely feel and embrace the culture, although which is so strange from yours. The interaction session with the audience successfully demonstrated the bridge had been built. The audience sensed the emotions presented by the improvisations without explanation. What a show!”

Duan Xinyu (British Consulate Chongqing)

‘The elements in the music were so picturesque, such as plaza dances, Ding Ding Dong (Ding Ding Candy), Qianling Park, factories, Lu Sheng, and Drum Dances. And the lighting design to mimic sunlight was wonderful. I felt that Quinta was swiftly passing different scenes like a nymph visiting the mountains and waters in Guizhou, admiring but not lingering, and delivering the beauty to the audience.”

Li Jingjing (audience member)

“British musician Quinta, with local artists, interpreted what they saw in Guiyang in a simple but touching way and presented those elements to audience directly and powerfully. I was led to know a unique and startling Guiyang, without whitewash. I felt inner peace for the moment in the audience. Thank you for Building the Bridge!”

Li Zhuotong (audience member)

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A few days of R&R: Beijing

In case I never had the chance to go back to China, I’d asked the British Council during our planning for the residency whether I could tag on a few days in the nation’s capital at my own expense before flying home. And I’m so glad I did- I’ve had a fantastic week to top off my time here in China!

A stroll around the immense and iconic Tiananmen Square…

…and the Forbidden City.

I loved following my nose around the meandering lanes of the Dongcheng hutong where I was staying. Its famous Drum and Bell Towers are pictured here, along with the beautiful square they border onto.

Beijing’s hutongs are a mass of lanes and alleyways that form the heart of the old city. People have lived and worked in them for centuries. Compared to the busy multiple-lane roads choking with traffic, the hutongs feel somehow human-sized, have a different pace and atmosphere. Here in my room as I write this, I’m totally out of earshot of traffic- a rarity in urban China. I can even hear the birds singing! Cars do occasionally come into the hutongs but the lanes are so narrow drivers usually avoid it. Instead there are bicycles and pedestrians- and the occasional moped buzzing along. Small shops and nice little cafes are hidden among the lanes. Mooching around you see all of life- people mending things, selling watermelons and tomatoes from the back of a van, walking dogs, chatting to neighbours or having a midday snooze in the backseat of a rickshaw- I love it! I heard that the authorities were extending a hutong demolition plan across the city and forced evictions were happening. What a massive shame if true- the hutongs are pretty much my favourite thing about Beijing.

Beijing is famous for bikes- and with reason!

And though roads are often wide, sometimes with 2 or even 3 lanes per direction, pavements and bike paths can also be wide- and often leafy too! I love how many trees there are in Beijing, lining the streets, providing shelter from the hot sun and adding a lovely softness to the urban landscape. The pictures below were taken on a walk through the Dongzhimen and Sanlitun areas in the east of the city.

People often use brilliant little 3-wheelers to get their goods or customers from A to B. You see them everywhere!

On another day of exploring, I found the streets of Wudaoying hutong, with its lovely cafes and boutique shops. As is common in China, lots of people were out enjoying the outdoors around there, including a group of elderly people doing keep-fit in a park gym and others playing table tennis.

On another recommendation, I visited the former imperial garden of Beihai with its temple complex and pagoda- a short walk from where I was staying. There were great views over the city from the top and it was lovely to see the lotus flowers coming into bloom in the park’s enormous lake. You generally have to pay to get into parks in China, which is different from what I’m used to. There are gates to get in and a wall around, which adds a layer of officialdom somehow. Since the entrance fees are so small, I guessed it was more to do with security and control than revenue generation, but it’s always lovely to get amidst the greenery nevertheless- a peaceful place that everyone seems to seek out and enjoy.

It was nice to get in a bit of people-watching. I love how lots of Chinese life happens outside, from games to dancing to knitting with old friends.

I also saw people reading the newspaper- one which had been displayed along a path in the park. It reminded me of the realities of freedom of information and censorship, and what a different culture there is here in China in this respect.

There were some beautiful gates in Beihai Park too. I have to say, you don’t have to look hard to find a fantastic gate here in China! The Chinese certainly know how to build them! Imposing, ornate and amazing!

During my time in the city, I met up with some of the Beijing-based friends of my new Guiyang pals- lunch with Wendy and Lulu, and a portrait-sketching session with Snow at the 706- a lovely alternative hostel focussed on free knowledge and youth empowerment.

Beijing’s eateries are great too! I’ve had delicious meals in my neighbourhood at Dali Courtyard, Mr Shi’s dumplings, Le Little Saigon, and further afield at the lovely Bookworm bookshop in Sanlitun- a great recommendation from Leah at the British Council!

A lovely way to end my time here in China!

Final thoughts, final farewells

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.

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(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!

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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!).

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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!

A day off at Loong Palace

With no more work to do and only two days left in Guizhou province, today was a day to relax and have fun. Kerun and I visited the waterfall at Huang Guo Shu and later the caves and beautiful walking trails of Loong Palace scenic area- and I couldn’t have asked for a nicer day off!

Huang Guo Shu is the most famous waterfall in China, thought to be the widest and most impressive in the country. We made our way through gardens of bonsai trees, bougainvillea and enormous water-sculpted rocks, down to the river and falls. There were a lot of tourists there also enjoying the view- but it was a pretty special one!

Leaving the crowds, we made our way to the far more tranquil Loong Palace caves and park, which were fantastic! The caves were a mix of wet and dry; some we travelled through by boat, some on foot.

The shapes inside were other-worldly and spectacular, lit up in all sorts of zany colours!

Afterwards, as the hot sun lowered in the sky, we followed the walking trails through the forest, past hidden-away temples with giant golden Buddhas, through more caves and forests of bamboo, admiring Guizhou’s gorgeous mountain scenery all the way. It really was so nice to spend time in the peace of the countryside- I’d craved it a bit, to see this side of China, just walking and talking with a new friend, and was so pleased we did it.

There were some repairs going on along one section of the path and I enjoyed this bit of to-the-point Chinese signage!

A really lovely day!

Show-time!

WHAT A FANTASTIC DAY! 

An amazing feeling of togetherness between everyone! What a wonderful gang I performed with tonight- they all totally smashed it! I was so lucky to have them be part of the show and work on it with me this past week. And the brilliant behind-the-scenes team too, organising, marketing, doing sound (even after being in a car accident en route to the venue as the sound man was), lighting, sorting visuals, managing tickets, bringing snacks- including CAKE! And pretty much the warmest audience EVER who were so open and appreciative- and who totally entered into the improv game which closed the show, full of suggestions and excitement! 

What a celebration of my time here in Guiyang this has been! A night which ended with all of us- performers, organisers, and audience, holding hands and dancing around the warehouse!  I couldn’t have asked for anything more memorable and powerful! 

I’m too tired and emotional to write much here, so I’ll let the pictures do the talking and post again soon with a film of the show.

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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A day off in Huaxi

Today I hung out with Kerun and one of my volunteer interpreters, Yivamin: a rest day ahead of my final week here in Guiyang.

We had lunch in the mellow leafy district of Huaxi.

Afterwards we stumbled upon a fantastic street market- apparently an increasingly rare sight these days in Guiyang. With fears about bird flu, and a general desire to ‘clear things up’ and house traders in shops, many markets like this have disappeared. It feels like a shame: this market was all colours, energy and bustle- and I bought a cabbage there for 10p!

Then we visited the nearby Confucius Academy, and learnt more about how deeply Confucian philosophy has influenced Chinese culture for the past 2500 years. We also learnt how to make foodie treats for the Dragon Boat Festival which is happening for the next three days throughout China.

The mountains in Guiyang still amaze me- really distinctive in shape, and jutting out from between the houses and high-rises all over the place.

In the evening, Yiva and I had a bit of a girlie night out- for dinner, a local Guiyang speciality, spicy crab, followed by a trip to the movies. 

It was lovely to see Guiyangers out by night, enjoying the lights and the festival atmosphere, as I went to catch my taxi home.

A week of making: dance

It’s come to the end of another intense week of making here in Guiyang, and things are shaping up nicely for the devising and rehearsal sessions next week ahead of Saturday’s performance.

On Monday, I met the two dancers who, along with the four musicians, will be my fellow performers for the show: gentle, smiling Xie Shun, and charismatic Wu Hong Zhi, whose dance company the two come from. I explained to them about the show, and they immediately seemed to grasp the idea- the unconventional presentation of the material, the non-traditional warehouse venue, the creation of an environment for the audience to enter into rather than a regular concert hall-style performance. It was an exciting meeting.

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They also tried on their costumes. It was great finally to see them being worn rather than hung on coat hangers in the hall of my apartment- and a bit of leaping around showed the jangling bottle tops were going to work a treat!

Not being a dancer or choreographer myself, I knew I needed to work with strong and imaginative dancers to fully realise the show, and was relieved when I met and talked to Shun and Hong Zhi. Later in the week, during a workshop with the local university’s dance students held to build up a pool of ideas for next week, I saw their beautiful imaginations in action, as they responded to tasks and improvised. Any worries I’d had about whether things would come together in time for the show evaporated. They just seemed to get it.

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Over lunch, we talked about how they’d come to be dancers and how they saw the dance world here in Guiyang and wider China. Both had come to dance quite late- in their mid-teens- but they saw something positive in this. They saw that, unlike the university students in the workshop who were much more formal and less creative in their approach, they had not been so defined by traditional Chinese dance teaching. They saw their practise as two-fold. First they perceived or interpreted, and then they expressed. In traditional dance, only the latter- expression- is taught, and what is expressed is pre-determined. Expressiveness is not related to personal agency or creativity but to a set of pre-existing traditions- specific movements and gestures. I had noticed during the sessions what Shun and Hong Zhi were describing too, particularly at the beginning. The students seemed always to wait for their teacher to direct them and to be quite bewildered when I asked them for ideas of their own. Shun and Hong Zhi were clearly more experienced than the students, and with that comes confidence, but even so, I saw the difference in culture too. It was quite striking.

Shun and Hong Zhi are contemporary dancers, and as we talked about our practice, I realised we had a great deal in common. They both work hard to bring creativity and play into their work and value process as much as product. Hong Zhi explained that in general dance companies in China are on the state payroll- dance companies that perform traditional Chinese dance, that is. Apart from Guangdong’s contemporary dance company, founded as part of an experiment to bring in cultural forms from the west through Hong Kong and where Hong Zhi had worked as a younger dancer, not a single contemporary dance company receives government support. At first, when Hong Zhi set up the company four and a half years ago, it was hard to connect with audiences who found the form too far from what people were used to. “We had to be brave in those days”, Hong Zhi said, “We believe it’s important to show your work, to communicate your ideas as part of your artistic practise, but it was hard to show stuff that wasn’t conventional”. I asked them how it felt to be a creative person, and therefore a little bit against the grain of prevailing Chinese culture. They said it took perseverance. For them, it had been certain teachers who’d opened up new horizons for them, performances they’d been a part of, opportunities they’d been given along the way that had helped them develop into the creative people they’d become. Originally, they’d been just like the university students too, following the rules. I felt inspired by them, and was not surprised to learn their company had won the highest prize for dance in China in two separate years. Next year, Hong Zhi plans to run a festival encouraging local young dancers to make and perform new works of their own. Lucky young dancers, I thought, and good on you for opening up that door to them, Hong Zhi!

Here is a little film I made of the workshop:

Another element of the performance we discussed was the triggering of sounds via the copper tape flooring- a part of the show we’ll explore and choreograph during devising sessions next week. Earlier this week, I’d been to the venue to unroll the large piece of purpose-bought clear PVC flooring, measuring three metres by three, and to design a draft layout for the copper tape. Connecting each piece of tape to my laptop via a small circuit board, and opening up the Max MSP patch I’d made for the show, I tested the samples with the help of Nancy from C-zone. Between us, we ‘completed the circuit’, touching each others’ skin to trigger the sampled sounds- lusheng, violin, cymbal, various industrial buzzes and clunks etc. I love the potential for music not only to be performed but to be ‘danced’ using this approach, and was excited to imagine how Shun and Hong Zhi might interact with the concept.

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It was great to visit C-zone again that day- the first time since we’d visited and decided it would be the venue for the show. Everyone was again really friendly and I was happy I’d brought promo copies of my forthcoming record for Nancy, Chase and Andrew- a little token of thanks to them for so generously letting me use the space. I discussed with Nancy what would be the parameters of the performance area and we agreed what would be moved out of it (various boxes and cupboards) and what would be moved in (copper-coloured tables, easels, a table football game which may feature in the show etc…). It made me feel excited about just getting in there with the performers and exploring it for real. A few days later, Nancy sent me some photos of the clearing process, saying, “It was such a fun experience with all the team members doing some labor together, moving stuff around, putting things in place, laughing and talking. We haven’t done that in a long time”. It’s lovely when a project brings unexpected chances for people to connect and feel part of something.

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As well as dance, this week has involved finishing off the musical scores, one of which- a more experimental score named High-Rise inspired by the formation of windows in the apartment block opposite my building- had to be translated into Chinese for the performers to understand it properly. The amazing Kerun of course did an immaculate job and I was really excited to see the beautiful script all over the translated scores.

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Kerun and I also visited the musicians this week, to take them their parts and to have a try-on of the costumes. The weather had not been so great over the preceding few days, quite overcast, and I’d begun to feel a bit cooped up in my apartment, making the scores. But visiting the musicians was SO NICE! They really are very lovely people- and really up for an adventure! Because of rush-hour traffic Kerun and I were nearly an hour late, but the musicians were totally gracious when we arrived, getting drinks for us and looking excited about the scores and costumes. After they tried the costumes on, full of smiles, I asked Kerun whether they’d prefer to keep them or have me store them on their behalf. He revealed they’d excitedly asked whether they could keep them right at the start of the meeting. I feel very lucky to be working with such a great team!

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Luckily for me, the weather turned yesterday afternoon and the sun came out, so I went for a walk. Guiyang’s Big Data Expo was opening and the streets were full of delegates, chatting and looking for places to eat in the soft evening light. There was a nice buzz and I headed to the tranquility of Guanshanhu park again for a lovely stroll.

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Room with a view

A little aside about my 28th floor apartment. I’ve spent quite a lot of time making stuff here in the last couple of weeks. And it really does have the coolest view…

Guiyang is renowned for its ‘four-seasons-in-one-day’ weather. One moment, bright sunshine, the next, low misty clouds and rain…

And sundown when the sky is clear is especially gorgeous- luckily, the view I have tonight…

A day off in Qingyan

Yesterday, Kerun said “Right, you’re having a day off. Let’s go to Qingyan!”

So we did!

The origins of the ancient town of Qingyan situated towards the southern outskirts of Guiyang date back to the beginnings of the Ming Dynasty in the 14th century. It was established as a military outpost and has since been preserved as a cultural centre and major Guizhou tourist attraction.

Happy to see that China is still keeping the dream alive for Richard Clayderman and sketchy waxworks (yes, apparently that’s Steve Jobs)…

…we passed through the town’s perimeter walls into the hustle and bustle of the streets within.

We visited the many beautiful and historic wooden pavillion houses with their tranquil courtyards and distinctive Chinese architecture.

We came upon one courtyard full of pomegranate trees covered in brightly-coloured ‘wishing ribbons’. The lion pictured below had been carved to have a free-rolling stone ball in its mouth- amazing! There were ancient friezes around the walls of Taoist temple nearby with the most incredible detail. 

(And I can’t express quite how much I wanted to pet this cute little dog curled up by the ticket booth).

We climbed the fortified town wall with the other holidaying visitors…

…and took in the beautiful- and typically forested and mountainous- Guizhou views from the top.

We ate lots of delicious food today- again a really sociable experience. When one person at the table tried to take a piece of the potato patty, for instance, everyone else’s chopsticks dived in to help them pull off a piece to eat- so lovely. And it was fun sampling the street food together too.

Towards the end of the afternoon, we visited two cafe-bookshops in the town, run by Kerun’s friends. And they were gorgeous! There seems to be a lovely bookshop tradition in China- beautifully designed spaces, often in traditional antique wooden buildings, where you can sit and read with a cup of tea or coffee in your hand, and where the atmosphere is supremely tranquil. 

One of Kerun’s friends served us tea according to the traditional tea ceremony- a lovely, calm and sociable experience. The way Chinese people value eating and drinking together is fast becoming one of my favourite things about the country. 

We talked during our tea drinking about types of tea and methods of preparing it. Kerun’s friend explained that her method of pouring tea into the brewing bowl was taught to her by a tea ceremony master. Rather than pouring the tea from a height and churning up the leaves, she pours gently so as not to disturb the bowl’s contents. There is almost a symbolic or philosophical underpinning to this, she said- like in life, it’s best not to force or agitate, but to let things come naturally. The others talked about people they knew who started each day with a tea ceremony and some guqin playing, a meditative gathering of oneself for the day ahead. We all feel pretty blissed out after two hours in that beautiful courtyard. 

A lovely day!