Dance on Water: Show Day

Well I would put up loads of pics from our journey but I can’t seem to upload them! Safe to say that we rocked up to Salford Quays and it was a stark contrast from the spacious, picturesque and middle-of-nowhere countryside we’ve been used to for the past 8 days! There was a sigh of slight dissapointment as we had to say goodbye to that world and familiarise ourselves with the terrain we escaped last week!

But this also means that we’re nearing the finale of our project and that means two shows at both the Lowry and Birmingham Hippodrome Theatres!

 

Last night we went to see the opening of the U-Dance platform at the Lowry which included a hip-hop-clog dancing mash up with fiddles, accordions and beat boxing by Folk Dance Remixed choreographed by Kerry Fletcher and Natasha Khamjami. Then the main double bill was ‘Axon’ by the Lowry Centre for Advanced Training (CAT) choreographed by Phoenix Dance Theatre Sandrine Monin and Vanessa Pang. The second piece was ‘In- Nocentes’ by National Youth Dance Company choreographed by Michael Keegan-Dolan assisted by Rachel Poirer and James O’ Hara.

All the pieces inspired and ignited our groups passion for dance. There’s nothing like watching young people watch young people and they left with a sense of seeing our DOW piece as a part of a huge wealth of fresh talent and a new generation of beautiful dancers!

There have been some tough moments on this project where I’ve seen the young people really step up their game and help each other and I’ve seen them learning things they would take for granted in any other situation. The immersive and experiential nature of this project has hopefully given them insight into life in a professional company but also life lessons and growth as indivials.

And it’s not even over yet!!!!

As I type we’re currently making our way through Pomona Lock from the Quays and will be rehearsing soon! If you can get to the Lowry tonight we’re performing from 6pm alongside Commotions! With all this work let’s smash our first show, then to Birmingham tomorrow!!!

I’ll see you outside the Lowry tonight at 6pm!

 

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Dance on Water: a little lift

So it’s day 6 and we’re making our way through a series of tunnels leading from Anderton Boat Lift to Lymm! Despite a minor crash, sunburn, midgey bites, freezing morning showers, keeping the skippers submerged in a constant flow of tea, late nights and early starts the group are creating stunning work!

The atmosphere is settling as the company become a community and with our newest member Danilo, our professional film maker, on board the team is complete for our last 5 days.

Last night we moored just up from the huge Anderton Boat Lift, (which we went on!), there was news that there was a hot shower and toilet! It does amaze how most conversations revolve around food and poo!!! Most of us took the opportunity for a proper shower which was a moment of luxury that was most needed! A little lift which followed the massive Anderton Boat Lift!

If cabin fever sets in or there’s a moment of stress it’s lovely to be able to take a moment to have a wander, sit in a quiet place or watch the world go by. There’s an immersive connection to nature here so you’re constantly reminded of the many forms of life, including us, that occupy but also rely on the waterways.

We’re excited to have some of our New Adventures team meeting us in rehearsals later on and on todays menu we have chilli for lunch and pizza for tea!

Here’s a list of some of my favourite boat names so far:
Narrow escape
Aslan II
Amazing Grace
All day breakfast
Chardonnay
The four seasons

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Dance on Water: I’m on a boat!

Today I steered our longest narrow boat which included a 90° turn, which I liken to a hairpin bend, in one move and only caused minor bumps when wrestling with the tiller, (yes I speak boat now!), to get into a lock!

Fascinating, change of pace entirely and on the whole a lovely community of people who live along the canals!

We have exceptional Skippers guiding us along the waterways, many of whom have lived/ worked on boats for over 25 years including head honcho and main instigator for the Dance on Water Project John who spent 4 days volunteering with the refugee crisis in Greece and ended up staying for months and setting up his own charity working to bring aid to refugees in Greece! There’s just a wealth of experience and depth of conversation that you wouldn’t get anywhere else!

Huge thanks to Rob who trained both myself and fellow Ambassador Luke through the journey I even got to shout “Crank it up to 11!!!” as we rip-roared through the stunning countryside at at least 4mph!

I also worked with our girls to make chicken curry and a rather delightful rhubarb crumble which was added to my list of first time achievements! We’re all learning here!

I could get used to this speed for a while!

💦💦💦💦

Dance on Water: Ahoy Hoy!

As I settle down for my second night on the boat I can’t believe how my body adjusts to the constant motion. The Skippers mentioned how unusual it is when they stay on solid ground and judging by some of the groans and lifeless bodies surfacing from the waters it was clear some of our lot had a rough night!

With a full day rehearsing and 5 locks under our belt we’re definitely getting into it! Tonight’s special was spag bol so 5 lots of ingredients were divvied up amongst the boats and brought together for the best spag bol I’ve eaten whilst afloat! Getting used to the water, toilet roll and electricity rules take getting used to, our shower built up to a lovely watery bath-like experience before we realised there was a switch to pump the water out!! I even managed a first and made rice pudding which was edible!

It’s such a distinct difference to live and journey on a boat and I’m very privileged to get a glimpse of our gorgeous world through an entirely different lense. Some of the company are mentioning how nice it is to not have a phone with them all the time (apart from going mental when we found a pocket of WiFi and they managed 5 minutes of Love Island on catch up!).

I’m reminded that this was once a tough life for the boaters from years ago and as my feet step into the grooves and touch the marks on the locks repeatedly worn by people over hundreds of years you can’t help feeling that you’re a part of waterways unique history.

Musings aside the piece is starting to take shape. A small lunch break in a town so the cast let loose buying their body weight in snacks but one of our 3 pieces coming together nicely!

To bed in preparation for our only travel day tomorrow with 17 locks to conquer! I’ll let you know if I manage to not fall in!

👍

Dance on Water

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Well….

Last night my feet were in a muddy Forest having jam tarts thrown past my head and getting weed on by the sky in the wonderfully bonkers ‘Wonderland’ show with all 3 of the OTG Youth Theatre groups! And just to say what a joyous roller coaster it has been leading the Monday group since last September!

 

But! Where are my feet now? On a train about to head to our starting HQ at Birmingham Hippodrome for the official start of a phenomenal performance project with Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures and Re: Bourne!

As one of two Dance Ambassadors I’ve been running around for the last couple of months recruiting, workshopping and auditioning young people to find 20 up and coming dancers for DOW. 18 have been chosen along with 2 film students from UTC Media College who will be join myself and fellow Dance Ambassador Luke, 2 New Adventures dancers Ross and Chloe who will be choreographing the piece as well as our professional film maker,Helen the Queen of Project Management and the skippers and crew of the Canal and River Trust who will be teaching us how to eat, sleep, journey and work on a boat for 10 days travelling from Birmingham across the country’s stunning canal routes to Salford! BONKERS!

I’m almost at Manchester about to assemble the Salford gang then onto Birmingham!

The next time you hear from me I’ll be a mermaid!

 

A heartfelt farewell

Two day day

I get up at  eight o’clock knowing that this is the beginning of nearly forty five hours of travel, but I don’t really care as it means we’ll be leaving Chongqing. No matter how many times we’ve heard how beautiful it is, I’m still not quite believing the hype. Colm is so thrilled that he is singing as we get on to the plane.

We arrive in the fog in Beijing and, for a moment, it looks like they’ve played a horrible trick on us and taken us back to Sichuan. But no, it’s just that China is grey everywhere today.

Back at the Xixi Youyi Hotel we wait for the lift just for old times sake. Our next flight leaves at 6.50 in the morning, so we’re quite keen to know when the coach will leave the hotel. I ask the lady from the Hanban who dutifully looks it up on the computer, finds the time and number of our flight and then tells me she doesn’t know. She does exactly the same for Colm and Brigitte. Our passports are taken away to be processed and I shout at the little Cambodian man who is trying to push in past the lovely Sri Lankan teacher. We share a moment of commonwealth understanding and the Cambodian man scowls. If I’m honest, his singing has been winding me up all week.

Nobody knows what is happening so I take several of the students out to see Tiananmen Square. It’s at this point that we discover that I also don’t know what is happening. We turn left out of the hotel and start what should be a half hour wander. We see some fascinating things, a park where crowds of people are watching ballroom dancing and an all purpose vehicle being used for the purpose of hanging a street side badminton net. It’s great but the road appears to be getting darker and there is no sign of the eight lane highway which we need to turn left at. I check the compass on my phone and, to no one else’s surprise, we are heading the wrong way. Luckily I’ve spotted some busses passing which go to Qianmen, the bottom end of Tiananmen, so manage to regain a little local knowledge kudos by putting us on the right bus. Everyone still thinks, quite rightly, that I’m an idiot.

Tiananmen is still there and Mao still watching over it. We aren’t allowed into the square itself but mosey up the edge and take some photos next to one of the most unpleasant men in modern history.

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Our coach leaves at 4 in the morning so I decide to get as much sleep as I can. I say my goodbyes to Colm and Sophie and give them my most sincere thanks for keeping me sane.

When I get to the foyer at 3.45  students from all over the world are still up, wanting to spend as much time as possible with each other. We are the first to leave  and are given a riotous send off at the lift and another one at the minibus outside.

I know there has been a lot to be sarcastic about over the last three weeks but the students, because they have thrown themselves into everything with such a lack of fear, have, I think, had a unique experience. We were hugging and saying heartfelt farewells to Australians, Jordanians, Thais, Germans, Canadians, Russians, Tajekistanis, even the French. If people had been annoying it wasn’t because of their race or nationality but because they were annoying (and  the majority of the students know who I’m talking about) and everyone of the young people understands clearly that where you are from isn’t a signpost as to what you are like.

Maybe we should set up a British bridge and invite the rest of the world to tell is how much they love us. Bagsy in charge of the Splendid Stage.

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There’ll be singing in the streets of Berlin tonight.

Closing Ceremony Day

Well there’s a day of my life I’ll never get back.  We have done some impressive waiting while here in China but they had chosen our last full day in Chongqing to really show us how to do it properly.

We returned to the middle school one final time for what we were promised would be the highlight of the competition. On the way there one of our helpers, English name Phoebe, decided that she should probably have a go at talking to me. It looked as though we were going to run out of topics pretty quickly until she remembered that Harry Potter was British and asked me who my favourite character was. I said it was Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith), which it turns out is her favourite character too, so, with common ground established, I got a lecture on the merits of Harry Potter for the rest of the journey.  Mercifully, it was quite short.

At the venue the set had been spruced up a bit and it looked as if there were plenty of new graphics to play with. We started by rehearsing the prize giving ceremonies, and when I say rehearsing, I use the word quite wrongly. Whenever someone is talking or giving instructions out here there are always a significant number of people not listening, and it’s not usually the students. Our guides and Chinese helpers are often having discussions while important information is being given out. On the buses the person with the mic seems to assume that having a mic is enough to disseminate all the necessary information and won’t ask or wait for quiet, seemingly unaware of the fact that not being able to hear (and, for some us, not being able to understand when you can hear) is a hindrance to finding out what is going on. Well, this is how the rehearsal is working. There’s a poor fellow on stage who is not only trying to explain how the presentations will work, and having watched the show I’ve still no idea, but also what those receiving the prizes should do. He is doing this without being able to tell us who has won any of the prizes or, for that matter, what any of the prizes are, so he is on a bit of a hiding to nothing.  He keeps repeating, “then group one winners will come and stand.  Then off.  Then group two.  Then this way.  Ok, understand?” He never gets an answer because no one is listening. Colm can’t take it anymore and shushes the crowd, but that just means they look to him to see if he knows what is going on and when the poor chap on the stage starts talking again, so do they. It will come as no surprise that, when it went to air, this part of the show was gloriously shambolic.

We do some runs of the repeat of the Splendid Stage shows that are being shown tonight and there is a new dance routine that looks particularly exciting. We’re about four hours into the rehearsal by now and I decide to go and have a wander about outside. There is what can only be described as a carnival feel outside the theatre. Serried ranks of children are practicing dance routines for I don’t know what and families seem to be wandering around taking in the atmosphere. A few of the foreign students have bunked off rehearsals, presumably realising that it really won’t make any difference to the quality of the show, and are having their photographs taken with local children and adults alike. I find a nice bakery which is serving proper coffee and order myself a large espresso. I’m not too surprised when I’m not given an espresso but am a little perplexed when, once the coffee has been prepared, the woman adds ice before giving it to me.

Back into the auditorium for what seems like another age. They have started putting the various teams in an order for the final number.  It is literally a case of getting them to come on and stand in a line but the assistant director seems to be having problems with this and can’t decide where he wants the various lines to be, on the first level of staging, the floor, who knows? He must have swapped them round about four times before they start getting rebellious and stop listening to anything he says. It’s quite entertaining watching a cast on the edge of mutiny, at least, when it’s not your cast. They bring out the presenter of the show who speaks very good English. I’m imagining that the tv company are hoping that the presence of such a celebrity will calm the seething masses but, as none of them are regular viewers of Chongqing TV, this plan isn’t immediately successful.  However, he seems like a very nice man and speaks good English so goes for the slightly more demeaning option of pleading with the contestants to do what they’re told.  I imagine he’ll be having words with his agent this evening.

At this point Colm and I steal out of the auditorium as we have secret information that tea will be arriving at 5.15 and we’re going to make sure that we are first in the queue.  We get our McDonalds burger and chicken pieces. It’s already cold.

Back in the auditorium the cast are still being shouted at about these bloody lines.  Most of them have just sat down and are chatting. It would be the simplest thing to do to get them to listen, stand up and stand in their teams and Colm and I both reckon we could do it in twenty minutes max, but we’re both feeling cussid so do bugger all. After three hours of line work they are all finally allowed to break for tea. The helpers come up to Colm and I to tell us we can go and eat too, and when we tell them that we’ve already had ours they look utterly shocked.  How?  We had not be told that we could go and eat, so how is it that we have had food? We decide not to try and bother explaining that we chose to do it of our own free will.

So it’s nearly show time and I am already aching from doing nothing. Rather irritatingly, some of the Chinese teachers from our hotel arrive at ten to seven having missed the pain of the afternoon. They must know someone.

I go out to stretch my legs and the carnival mood outside has turned into an actual carnival. The children, and there are more here than before, line the whole boulevard and are dancing to Pink and Lady Gaga while the spectators stand in the middle looking thoroughly perplexed and slightly fearful of the whole affair. There are flashing lights, more people in Chinese Bridge Doll suits, who are going the whole hog today and not taking the heads off or attacking each other, local dignitaries and people taking photographs everywhere. There are new boards outside the theatre with photographs of the contestants at various points of the competition. I appear on one of the shots at the tree planting ceremony and am looking cross. Not as cross as Colm though.

At seven o’clock we are let back into the overfamiliar theatre along with screaming crowds of Chinese students. This means that we only have an hour to wait before the show begins. The director dutifully warms everyone up, he’s earning his money today as well as the presenter, although I don’t think I could be more excited.

The show opens superbly with an excellent dance routine and new songs from some of the competitors. It is, with the obvious exception of the performances of my two students, a speedy descent from here. I have seen girl with hat without her hat today and she was unassuming and very pretty. The hat and the boots are back on for the show and Colm and I are wondering if the free bottles of water we have been given should be used a missiles for the good of all watching. She and her group redo the piece that we thought was underwhelming last time we saw it. Our review proved accurate.

Ollie’s group had become even camper than last time, which we hadn’t believed was possible and then we were treated to an American (who seems to have Chinese as a first language) banging some sticks and performing a poem. I understand that banging some sticks may sound pejorative but he did it very well. A Thai girl did a song while wearing what looked like someone else’s dress and finally, for this section, the Cambodian (it’s a big night for South East Asia) treated us to a bit more Wushu. He finished by telling us that he loved Chongqing and he loved China. There’s a man who knows how to play to the crowd.

Some award giving out was next. Our friends, the Canada 2nd team won something (they’re not quite sure what) but got up at the wrong time to receive it as one of the runners, who obviously also was not paying attention at this afternoon’s rehearsal, thrust them on stage. They dealt with it by looking as if they knew what they were doing, which put them in a league above everybody else.

Some more things happened before David’s group came on again, this time with an astonishing new outfit. They are all wearing Breton style stripy tops with white PVC trousers, hot pants for the girls, finished off with a black leather belt. I’m not sure what it’s meant to say about hotpot but I can’t imagine the trousers are very pleasant to dance in. I ask David if he can explain the decision, but I think he’s decided that it’s easiest just to do as he’s told. He’s becoming a native. When it comes to the bit where David has to appear on stage while everyone asks, “Where is David?” there was no sign of him. I guess the cast were lucky in that they did not have to ad lib too much and could just keep shouting, “Where’s David?” with a creeping sense of desperation. Knowing David as the consummate pro that he is I was sure there must be a reason and, sure enough, he tells me afterwards that there was no sound man there to give him a mic and eventually he had to run on without one before the cast on stage exploded with the ferocities of their “Where’s David?” Thank goodness we did all the rehearsal otherwise this could have looked shoddy.

Speaking of shoddy, more presentations, more bumping into each other.

It could be said that I wasn’t wholly enjoying it up to this point, but then it got worse. The Malawian lad came on and the giant screens behind started showing pictures of his orphanage. There were pictures of him with his teacher, or his Chinese mother as the presenter suggested, and a couple more shots of him and other orphans doing Chinese things (bouncing ping pong balls and touching a Fu were mysteriously missed off). It would have all been ok except for the cloying piano music that started underscoring the whole interview, demanding us to pity the lad and, in equal measure, to thank the munificent Chinese government for all their benevolence. I don’t want to criticise them for helping the most vulnerable in the poorest countries, but there was something about this that didn’t feel right. Anyway, the Malawian lad didn’t seem to get quite upset enough for the presenters and then did a wushu performance which was probably my highlight of the night. When he sat back down right in front of me one of the other competitors asked if, as suggested in the interview, that they really only spoke Chinese in the orphanage. He smiled and said no, they usually spoke to each other in English.

All the students were then taken out, we hoped for the last number, but it may well have been to ensure that all of the water bottles in the auditorium didn’t end up on stage. Hat girl was back. God alone knows why but she was being interviewed about how super Chongqing is and what a wonderful time she was having and how she loves China, and it turns out that she isn’t actually very good at Chinese. The audience actually laughed at her at one point when she said, for the fourth time, “Yeh, it’s been really good fun.” The presenters asked about her Chinese family and how much she loved them and she agreed that she loved them lots, no really, huge amounts.  “Well,” said the presenter, “you didn’t know this, but those Chinese parents that you love so much are here tonight.” Hat girl, in one of the most spectacular pieces of performance I have ever seen, looked thoroughly shocked, choked and excited at the same time.  “What here?” she asked, not daring to hope or believe what she had just been told.  “Yes, that’s right, all the way from a couple of blocks away, here they are.” And to a fanfare, the Chinese family, who she’d seen only yesterday, came on stage. The family were obviously so excited to be there, hat girl was in tears, the audience were feeling bad about earlier laughter and Colm and I were looking round to see if there were any more bottles we could launch at any of them. The interview went on, possibly for hours, and whenever hat girl couldn’t understand a question, which wasn’t infrequently, she’d just remember how happy she was and burst into tears again. It was appalling but the audience lapped it up – got to give to hat girl, she knows her market. I am coming to hate both current superpowers.

Tears brushed aside, the spectators sang a song which had obviously been an afterthought for the organisers and then came the final parade, the thing we had rehearsed the whole afternoon for. It went wrong from the outset.  The Brits and the Americans who were meant to be on the second row were pushed on first.  We came on waving our flags as if that was always the plan – we may not have the brazen desperation to perform as our cousins across the pond but we are reliable to the last. It’s all in the training. The other teams came on in whatever order they where in and stand wherever there is a space. It works fine.

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And there is just time to announce the final winner.  We are all genuinely thrilled to see the German girl, who performed so well in the Emperor’s new clothes, get the top prize. She had been friendly and lovely throughout.  She wins a year’s scholarship in China (second prize, two years) but her teacher tells me she probably won’t take it as she is planning on going into acting. I might have known.

On the bus home there is a great atmosphere (on my part because the bloody closing ceremony is over) and much international hugging.

There’ll be singing in the streets of Berlin tonight.

Knee-chopping Hell

Day Out

I am impressed at how thoughtful the authorities have been in designing the schedule for us. Yesterday they reintroduced us to knives and forks and today we got to spend five and a half hours sitting on a bus so as to prepare ourselves for the long flights ahead of us.

I was pleased to see that the traffic policewomen were with us for breakfast. I think I might be starting to get a little bit of an unhealthy fascination with them – it’s the leather boots, tight leggings and sparkling white crop top with gold braids, and obviously the position of power, that awake feelings in me that make me think I’ve been out here too long.   I’ve never felt this way about uniforms before.

They guide us impeccably through the morning traffic and out of the city. Just as you think you’ve left the urban landscape behind another huge tower block looms out of the mist. I see my first paddy field and it’s right next to the stanchions for a new high speed railway line and a fifty storey construction site. But without a doubt, the pollution is thinning and the outlines of the hills are becoming clearer. There are signs along the motorway warning of particularly foggy sections and viewing the mountains from these areas you can see the simple colours and brush strokes of  Chinese painting writ large in front of you.  The sky is white and the hills are a monotone grey and the only thing to focus on is their striking outline.

The students sleep most of the way, it’s tiring being a tv celebrity rushed from rehearsal to recording (then staying up half the night), and I doze in and out of consciousness with a bizarre playlist of songs providing the soundtrack to the journey. Simon and Garfunkel always, no matter where you’re travelling, make what you’re looking at seem like an art house film about lives that you’ll never really come into contact with.

We arrive at the county town of Dazu which feels like it should be in the middle of nowhere, but there are rows of huge modern buildings and what must be a 30,000 seat stadium in the middle of town. Only one ancient bridge right in the centre belies what this place must have looked like probably only twenty years ago.

We stop for lunch (11.30), with the police, at a huge lotus farm. The sun has come out and, although this is basically a lotus factory, it has been designed well and the views of mountains, lakes and small pagodas remind me how beautiful China can be.  Lunch doesn’t quite live up to the views.  You can always tell how good a meal is by how much tofu you end up eating.

Finally we make it up to the entrance of the famous (?) Dazu rock sculptures. We haven’t done quite enough loitering yet today so our guide, who is rather bossy, makes us stand outside the entrance while she goes and does something very important. When she comes back she has headphones and receivers for us all through which she can talk at us at all times. We are ushered through the first gate then told by the invisible voice to wait, then to hurry up. There are lots of other guides talking into microphones so trying to work out which one is ours is a bit of an issue, especially when she seems to have no concept of turning around to see if we are there, or attempting to catch us up if we’ve gone ahead. She just keeps shouting in Chinese, “bus number four, bus number four.” The problem with this is, for those unfamiliar with the language or the Chongqing accent (and that doesn’t rule many of us Westerners out) that “bus number four” sounds pretty much the same as, “That was tasty”, so my students can’t understand why she is always talking about the meal we have just had. It seems as if she is somehow trying to cover its inadequacies by constantly referring to it.

There is another ticket gate for no apparent reason and we descend towards the rock carvings. Now, I don’t mean to show off but I have seen some rock carvings in my time.  Most notable were the ones in Datong, which is the only city I’ve visited which was dirtier than Chongqing.  In Datong you took up smoking to get a breath of fresh air and every pavement had a gutter full of coal dust but there were some seriously big Buddhas there carved into a cliff. The ones in Dunhuang were also impressive, not least because they were in the middle of the desert. All this by way of saying I wasn’t expecting to see anything new.  But I was wrong.

Our guide did everything she could to take any of the magic out of the experience by talking about every last little carving in Chinese. There were tour groups everywhere, all with their headphones on which is better than the noise of the Forbidden City I suppose, but it means that you are forever jostling to get past people to see where your particular fact whisperer is. At one point she disappeared into a cave and I only figured out where she was because I kept losing signal. She also had a habit of rushing past one group to explain another carving, then retreating to the one she had missed without telling any of us. Most of the guides have flags on sticks, but all the flags are yellow with red writing on so that seems to defeat the object. After about thirty minutes our guide sensed, possibly by the fact that she could only see one or two of us, that we may not be understanding everything and asked me if I knew what she was saying. Rather than admitting that I wasn’t even bothering to listen, I said I understood a bit but it might be helpful to some of the students if she could speak a little English as well. She looked most annoyed. I soon realised that this was a mistake because we now spent twice as long in front of each carving with a bilingual monotone description of exactly what we could see in front of us.

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It was at this point that I remembered that I could make decisions myself and that I didn’t have to listen to our interminable guide and I set off on my own. The carvings are all in a natural, sheltered valley which means that they have retained some of the colours with which they were originally painted. The valley is floor is a bamboo forest in which you expect to see a panda or two and if you look above the heads of the thousand or so tourists it is a peaceful and remarkable place. The intricacies as well as the size of some of the 12th and 13th century carvings are impressive and the range of subjects unlike anything I have ever seen before. A sleeping Buddha is next to nine dragons bathing a young Boddihsatva is next to a monk and a camel is next to nine guardians of nirvana.  There is a beautiful temple in the middle and an amazing depiction of the levels of the different states a soul can rest in, from being a god to being in “one of the eighteen storeys of hell” (even hell is high rise in Chongqing.) The levels of hell include knife mountain and the particularly unpleasant sounding “knee-chopping hell.” I can’t help but think how similar this looks to the Last Judgement in the basilica on Torcello, near Venice, or Michelangelo’s version in the Sistine Chapel. (I also think I might have just become a character in a Merchant Ivory film.).

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I really enjoy my time on my own, enjoying the sun and the incredible carvings, and meander back to the coach where our guide has planned a bit more quality waiting for us.

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Back in Chongqing city the policewomen have had motorways stopped at rush hour so we can get straight back to the hotel without stopping (don’t tell me that’s not a little bit appealing). The sun is still out or, as Colm puts it, “Look, they’ve dyed the pollution blue.” David and Ollie leave us for another rehearsal. I am expecting big things from tomorrow’s closing ceremony.

At the hotel I begin my packing. I can’t deny that this makes me a little bit happy.

Could be something I ate…

Ill Day

I woke up this morning not feeling well. I’m not sure if it something I ate or just the sheer exhaustion of trying to keep some degree of sanity in the weirdest two weeks I’ve ever had.  The fact that I fall straight asleep on the bus to the Normal University suggests it may be the latter.

I seem to have spent an inordinate amount of time over the last weeks waiting around. We wait for everything, for the bus, for food, to move from a restaurant when we’ve eaten food, for shows to begin, for lifts. I think one thing I will always associate China with now is waiting for and being in lifts. This morning I went from the eighteenth floor to the ground without stopping and gave a little cheer when I got out.

It is the tree planting ceremony this morning or, as it says on the massive poster we marshal ourselves in front of, the planting of the friendship forest.  We arrive in the university’s main square where there are signs being held by our hosts for all of the different nations. It’s impressive to see the range of nations all represented in the one place. We are surrounded by people carrying flags of all the countries and another row of students each with three foot long party poppers. Then we wait. Eventually there are some speeches, the people with the flags run around and the party poppers go off. It’s time to plant those trees.

We are slightly surprised when we get to the friendship forest that the trees are already well planted and about 30 foot high. No time for waiting for things to grow in the modern China. We find the tree with our flag on where there are some shovels and a bucket of water so we can at least pretend to be involved with the whole planting thing, and the tv crews can get some good footage. As Colm says, it’s more of a muck moving ceremony.

Colm with the Irish tree
Colm with the Irish tree

We wait around for a bit more.

Back into town for lunch and I’m glad to see that we have our police escort again. When we get to the restaurant the police shut off the road by driving their car across it so we can move in safety to the Golden Hans.

I nearly wrote at the end of yesterday’s blog that I thought I had seen everything. I’m glad I didn’t.

The Golden Hans is a Bavarian themed restaurant with an all you can eat buffet. The staff are dressed in dungarees made to look like lederhosen with face masks and cowboy hats. We are given knives and forks obviously in an attempt to reacclimatise ourselves with western ways, but the food is Chinese so we revert to chopsticks. The sexy policewomen, possibly extras from TJ Hooker, have come to lunch with us, which is nice.  Some of the students are excited to see that pizza is available though less pleased when they discover it is banana pizza.  We have a cake to celebrate several birthdays which have taken place out here.  The cake is decorated, as are many of the sweet things out here, with cherry tomatoes which, if you were squinting, you could almost mistake for strawberries. After the cake the Teutonic waiters bring round slabs of meat on big skewers which they slice onto our plates. I decline the tripe but have a try of chicken hearts. There is much waiting at the end and no one seems to know what is going on which, if I look around me, is no surprise at all.

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It is all a bit much and I spend the afternoon in a darkened room.

Now that the students have all tried the street food they are keen for more and we go for noodles on a roadside cafe which I don’t think our health and safety executive would approve of. The food is great. David has been off to a recording studio again to prepare for the closing ceremony so one more evening of underrehearsed dancing and singing to look forward to. Indeed, both David and Ollie’s groups have been chosen to perform in the final so I am seeing that very much as a victory for the British team.

I’ve just been to the loo. I think it was something I ate.

Splendid Stage – Anything is possible in China

Splendid Stage Day

The day started splendidly. I got to lie in and then listen to the News Quiz, which I’d downloaded last night, in bed.

Then I got up.

We travelled to the same performance venue as the opening ceremony and took our seats. There were twelve Splendid performances and I took brief notes on them all in order to try and describe them. This may not be easy.

Splendid performance number one was a retelling of the Emperor’s New Clothes. There were lots of new clothes on display, the costuming sometimes slightly overshadowing the acting. That said, a German girl (the iPad’s automatic spelling just came up with a German Gielgud – that might be overselling it slightly) played an impressive swindler and the emperor himself did a fine job. I could see that one of the American lads whose Chinese is pretty good wasn’t best pleased to be cast as Man at Back, but he did have a very nice costume. Once I’d realised what was going on I started to wonder how they were going to do the nudity part of the story.  No need to worry, they did it by miming taking off a piece of clothing while the emperor actually remained completely covered up, only hands and face not swathed in white silk . The magic of theatre. We thought at first that the American girl in the hat was playing the narrator but we weren’t sure due to the lack of a hat. There was a certain frisson of excitement in the crowd when we thought we might actually be seeing her hair, but Colm soon noticed that she was competitor number thirty something (they all have to wear numbers just like in Miss World) and hat girl is, obviously, number one. A passable and enjoyable, if not completely splendid, start.

Number two.  Lots of people with cameras. Girls in red dresses, boys in white suits. They are obviously taking pictures of beautiful Chongqing. Their words, not mine. One girl loses her camera and has to go back to her Chinese family to find it. At this point a boy, still in white suit but inexplicably in a grey wig comes on and does a bit of taichi. Apparently he is the grandma. He/she has the camera.  Everyone sings. I think the director may have overreached a bit on this one.

Number 3 is a bit of a favourite but for none of the right reasons. The lads come on wearing dungarees with a big H on the front for no apparent reason. They look like they’re from a seventies kids tv show which didn’t make it to the full ITV network but which was possibly broadcast on Anglian or Border. They do some, and I’m not even sure this is the right word for it, dancing and do their best to look jolly. I imagine that some of them, foolishly, came here thinking they were taking part in a language competition so it may well be that they have concentrated on their language rather than their movement skills. Well, they’ve been caught out. The highlight is the Riverdance section. No one, especially not Colm sitting next to me, is expecting this. A guy who I think is from Singapore is flanked by eight Chinese lads and they Flateley it up to the max. Footwork is limited to shuffling with vigour but their line work is obviously where they’ve spent the time. They lift their arms, look down the line and, inexplicably, bounce up and down.  If just one of them had the faintest idea what they were doing or could do it in time this would be rubbish, but as it is, the hinderance of understanding or timing is all gone and what they create is, I think, a genuinely unique theatrical event.

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Number 4 involves Amercian girl in the hat.  I know this because she’s there wearing to same bloody hat and cowboy boots. I can’t explain why but it’s the boots that really make me cross. Silver cowboy boots. You’re in China and we’ve all got it – you’re American.  We know. And you’re Southern too.  We understand. Just put some other clothes on.   I mean, you’re  OK but you’re not  Dolly Parton. The other American’s are embarrassed by you. No-one else is wearing the same stuff every day. Ollie doesn’t go out dressed as a policeman. Please. You wore the boots and hat while sightseeing in Beijing, and now you’re wearing them again on stage. They’re either casual boots and hat or show boots and hat. Make your mind up.  I’ve no idea what was going on in this show. Lots of singing, most of it not very good. Underwhelming is Colm’s review. If she wins I’m going to write a stiff note to someone.

Number 5. Again I’ve got no idea what is going on. There are lots of Chinese extras, my favourites being the girls with tennis balls on a piece of elastic who do a dance. One girl drops her ball but ploughs on as if nothing has happened. She should be highly commended for her composition and focus under stress but I imagine she’ll be dropped from the tennis ball dance team. Competitor number 24 is by far the worst dancer yet and I simply can’t take my eyes off him – to be able to avoid the rhythm so absolutely must take years of practice. The piece finishes with a rather nice tableau with lanterns and red sheets, but they’re out of time so it won’t count.

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The first half finishes with number 6 – the kitchen special, a show that answers questions that no one has ever thought of asking. I think that they’re trying to extol the virtues of Chinese food so why they’re dressed as western chefs is anyone’s guess. They spend a lot of time looking at a wok and marvelling at, oh I don’t know what, its wokiness I presume. Then one of them asks the question that you can see they’ve all been bursting with which is, “What happens when you hit a wok with chopsticks?”. We were all amazed to learn that it makes a noise. Cue dance routine to wok and chopstick backing. Towards the end of their routine they make a nod to 1930s German Epic theatre by putting some aprons on in full view of the audience, though I may be reading a little too much into that.

Group A have finished their bit and, in all honesty, it’s been pretty lousy. They have obviously had more money thrown at them than our groups and the majority of them are better linguists and we expected more.  It’s not that I’m after great pieces of art but a bit more teamwork and a little more understanding of what can be achieved in three days would be good.

Remembering the Norwegian guys dancing skills, I am not overconfident about the second half. I needn’t have worried.

Matty’s group come on first and tell the story of how some citizens from Echeng come to Chongqing and, surprise surprise, are bowled over by the delights of the city and decide they have to move there. I have no idea why Matty is playing a witch but my guess is some kind of flashback device. He handles his glitter with aplomb and has a most impressive elongated cackle that, I am sure, will be mentioned in Chongqing theatrical circles for years.

David’s group is next with their all singing, all dancing tribute to Chinese fondue. The dance is the best we’ve seen yet and even the Norwegian guy, who they’ve quite sensibly moved to the very back of the stage, is considerably better than the Riverdancers. There is a moment where the cast all pretend to lose David and he staggers back on stage looking drunk.  I’m hoping this isn’t an international stereotype but no, he’s drunk on the intoxicating smell of the hotpot and soon leads them all in another dance routine which involves lying in a circle  on their backs with legs in the air, a move which speaks volumes about cooking meat in a big vat of spicy boiling water, and which I think the choreographer has stolen from the Chinese synchronised swimming team.

The next group bring on a huge prop television (who told them they were allowed props) and do a channel hopping sketch show. Lorcan is particularly good as a fedora wearing gangster and one of the French girls does some very impressive gymnastics.  The piece finishes with a rendition of I Dreamed a Dream in the style of Susan Boyle, which, even in this show, is a shock.

In show number ten another French girl does some more gymnastics. Do all French gymnasts have to study Chinese or, maybe it’s the other way round, and you can’t study Chinese in France until you can do the splits and have mastered at least a passable cartwheel?  There’s another student, possibly from Malawi, who does some acrobatic wushu and, in the process, smashes his radio microphone into pieces. I can imagine the sound man’s face backstage. Anyway this piece involves lots of very well choreographed movement and choral speaking and some very colourful t-shirts. I don’t get exactly what they are saying all the time but I’m pretty sure it’s along the lines of how impressive Chongqing is, what a beautiful city, very safe, excellent infrastructure – the very core of what any good piece of theatre should be about.

The penultimate performance involves lots of White suits and gold fans. It sticks to the common theme of isn’t China smashing.   It’s all going terribly well until they start to sing.

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And finally, it’s Ollie’s piece which is a lot tighter than when I left it yesterday.  The adrenalin obviously kicks in and they perform with a camp gusto. I am disappointed that, due to the lack of space, the flag wavers don’t get the opportunity to try to kill each other.

And that was it – another two hours of television gold in the can, with the B team definitely on top. Splendid will never mean quite the same thing to me again.

We catch up with Sophie, whose birthday it is, and who looks to be having the worst day of her life. The German teacher also comes up to us looking like she desperately needs someone to talk to. Colm and Sophie are, quite rightly, complaining about the security measures at the other hotel where there are five teachers and over one hundred and fifty students. Then Brigitte joins in with some more gossip from the other camp. Apparently a lot of the Asian teachers have been complaining that, this being a language competition, there hasn’t been enough focus on the language. The Singaporeans were particularly cross about this but then everyone got cross with them for having the nerve to turn up when they all speak Chinese anyway. Some of the minor nations (we know our place out here) then joined in pointing out that a majority of the students are Chinese overseas students or have lived and been to school in China which also made things unfair. I am very tempted to add in my contribution and suggest that I don’t think there has been enough dancing. There was no opportunity to dance in the supermarket stage at all. How are we supposed to master the difficulties of the Chinese language when we can’t even recognise our own vocabulary of movement?  I’m hoping not to be invited back next year.

I take several of the students out for street food for tea and it is the best meal I’ve had yet. The students seem to love the experience too.  Colm and I then go and have a birthday drink with Sophie in the sixth floor Our Music Salon bar where we drink sweet white wine while listening to easy listening classics rendered in Chinese, including a particularly surprising reggae version of The Fields of Athenry.

When, coming off the plane, I saw a poster which said “Anything is possible in China.”  I didn’t know they meant this.