I've succeeded in seeing four performances in the past four days! I doubt I'll find my way into the underground experimental scene while I'm in Beijing, for several reasons: 1. it's August, and groups seem to be on hiatus until the end of the month, 2. things are pretty disorganized and I don't know how events are publicized, and 3. even if I did, I couldn't read the listings. The shows I've made it to have all been at theaters funded by the government, and although they weren't controversial in the slightest, some interesting themes popped up.
The Capital Theatre:
The first show I saw was "Niao Men" (Birds), at the Capital Theatre. It was a stage play, with very little movement and lots of talking. I made a serious effort to try and figure out the plot, and I managed to glean that the main story line revolved around a group of old men who sit in a park with their caged birds (a common sight in the public parks), and that one of them was a big Peking Opera star back in the day. Some guy comes in and threatens their idyllic lifestyle by trying to make them give up their birds and get real jobs, and the old guys get upset. One of them is particularly enraged, and kills a couple birds. An American tourist (played by a Chinese actor) appears and is a total idiot who makes stupid tonal malapropisms, and everyone laughs at him. Then the old Peking Opera star appears in full Peking Opera regalia, and acts as a judge in a sort of informal trial. The big moment at the end is when someone pulls a cloth covering off of a birdcage, revealing a turkey. Then everyone leaves except the guy who came in to ruin everything, and he has a long silent moment with the turkey as 20 women in matching outfits march slowly through the park in unison, waving scarves and shaking little maraca things.
Clearly I didn't fully understand this one. But it was unexpected that Peking Opera played such an important role to the characters and to the plot and structure of the play, considering that most Beijingers do not regularly go to see Peking Opera. It's a cultural legacy that exists more for tourists than for its people these days, though I think people are proud of it in a museum-y kind of way. Its presence in this piece seemed very symbolic of the traditions and heritage that many people are concerned about losing as China hurtles into the future.
The National Center for the Performing Arts:
The next show I saw was "Red Classic Dance Drama: Ode to Red Chinese Plum", which was exactly what it sounds like: a dance drama extolling the virtues of Communism. It was performed at the National Center for the Performing Arts, the most beautiful building I've ever seen. As I expected, the dancing was technically stunning (the Chinese give a new meaning to the word "unison," and at one point a dancer ran across the stage on the tops of her feet...think about that for a second) but the choreography was pretty mawkish and uninspiring (lots of lovers or mother/child pairs going in for the slow mo hug, pausing, then clutching each other in a desperate embrace to show their passion). There were some interesting visuals, mainly featuring large red pieces of fabric and lots of chains and prison bars, though I wish they'd stopped before busting out the fog machine and huge tilting prison door effect.
These two pieces presented different perspectives on China's political and national identity, but shared a central belief in China's greatness as a nation, and their central protagonists' love for their country. In "Red Classic Dance Drama," all the virtuous characters suffer in prison but are happy because they are embroidering a huge red flag. So no matter how bad things are for you in your day to day life, if you use that life to stand by your country, you will have a kind of happiness that transcends suffering--the standard Party line. In "Niao Men," the protagonists struggle to reconcile elements of their cultural heritage with life in the modern world. As evidenced by the portrayal of the bumbling American tourist character, people don't want to make China into an imitation of the West. They want to find a way forward on their own terms.
Both shows were sold out, and the audiences were of all ages, from children as young as 7 or so to people in their 80s. They responded strongly, with standing ovations and many shouts of "Hao!" ("Good!", the Chinese equivalent of "Bravo!"). Regardless of my political opinions and my discomfort at the portrayal of Americans in "Niao Men" (I sunk lower and lower in my chair as people erupted in explosive laughter at his ineptitude), I came away impressed by the level of interest in the performing arts in Beijing, and local artists' ability to tap into relevant issues despite strict government censoring. I also have the strong conviction that as I write my play, my interest in the theme of reconciling China's past with its future is both timely and pertinent.