A Cloudy ‘Tea’

by Ken Smith

Back before the Olympic madness in Beijing and my full immersion in The Bonesetter’s Daughter in San Francisco, I put out word for anyone to help explain what precisely was being premiered in the “global premiere” of Tan Dun’s Tea at Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts. I’ve just recently noticed that the director Chiang Ching herself has addressed her production at length in the September issue of Ming Pao Monthly; her account of bringing Tea to China shows how ugly the performance climate there can still be.

In a five-page article, Chiang tells the highbrow Hong Kong journal that her frustrations with the production last July began when the Department of Commerce decided that her name – precisely the same characters as the infamous Madame Mao – was deemed too sensitive to use during the Olympic season. “In 1987 I was invited on an eight-city modern-dance tour of China,” the choreographer-turned-director writes. “No presenters told me I needed to change my name. But 21 years after [China’s] reform the right to use my own name was taken away.”

A few weeks later, she discovered that representatives from the Ministry of Culture had attended rehearsals unannounced. The Beijing production, which she admits was “largely based” on the version premiered in Stockholm in November 2007, was deemed “pornographic and unsuitable” for the public stage in China. Though nothing was put in writing, the Ministry did uncharacteristically explain its reasons: (1) “when the male and female characters are hugging in the second act, you cannot have light on them,” and (2) “they cannot be shown later rolling on the floor.”

Then came the projections. Chiang’s original concept in Stockholm featured a series of childlike sketches by the artist Ding Xiongquan portraying animals mating projected on bolts of white silk while dancers paraded around them. In Beijing, Chiang got a late-night phone call telling her that she had to “remove the mammals.” The next day the Ministry cleared the revised projections, but told her that the dancers and the silk were still “unclean.” The images ended up being projected on the back wall.

At each step of the way, Chiang kept asking to have the Ministry’s demands put in writing, or to speak to the leaders directly. Neither request was granted. “People would only say, ‘I understand your situation, but I can’t help you,’” she writes. “They would say, ‘The Olympics is a special time. We cannot have a single wrong.’”

From a safe distance at Sweden, Chiang ponders the past year in China: “Is this what is happening to the country? Is this the current climate?”

Tags: , ,

Comments are closed.