1) Today I travel to Beijing. I brave the Shanghai morning rush hour in the subway to get to the train station. Now I know what a city of 25 million feels like going to work. It's an extraordinary experience. Despite the many subways I've been on in many countries, this is something new. The combination of politeness and orderliness (people line up in front of where the doors will arrive) with full-on pushing and extreme human compression (people surge forward and squeeze through any opening to get on board the train), is not something I've really been through before. Nobody is angry or vindictive or upset - just doing what has to be done to get on a subway when millions of other people are doing the same. I am both alarmed (with the overwhelming numbers) and impressed (with the calm efficiency). Is this metaphoric, I wonder? Is your typical passenger in the Shanghai subway behaving the same as China does in the world? Simply claiming a position calmly, yet assertively, because that's just what needs to happen?
2) I get to a massive, gleaming, modern train station to board the bullet train. We accelerate smoothly to 300km an hour as I leave Shanghai for Beijing. The trains can go faster, apparently, but they have been slowed down for safety reasons. Still, they are faster than anything in the West, and certainly make our trains in Canada look prehistoric (I think of the diesel link to Pearson airport being built in Toronto - we are still using 19th century technology while China is firmly in the 21st century). I make the 1500km journey in just over 5 hours. On the way, I pass endless pods of building cranes and high rise apartments rising out of the smog around new factories. The scale of the construction is awesome.
3) I arrive in Beijing and get a cab straight to a meeting at the Beijing Dance LDTX company's home in the south eastern part of the city. The city is huge, and it take an hour to cross just a part of it. "LDTX" is an acronym for something that translates as "Thunder Rumbles Under Heaven", and this company is one of the best known modern companies in China. An organizer of the festival in Shanghai said this was the one company I should really meet with. They are experimental, contemporary and they understand international touring. Alain Paré, from CINARS in Montreal, told me the same thing. I am not disappointed. I sit down for a coffee with the genial Artistic Director, Willy Tsao, and it's the most refreshing meeting I have in China. Willy is a bubbling, funny, and straight-talking senior artist in China. My talk with him is really the first in-depth chat I've had with a Chinese artist since I've arrived. He is from Hong Kong, and has built his company entirely without government support. This gives him a leeway that is rare. He has two theatres, one in Beijing (a lovely 200 seater, in the building we're meeting in - a large, renovated auto repair place) and another in Guangzhou. He has a company of 14 dancers on the payroll, with several in-house choreographers. All of this is funded by family money from Hong Kong. So a family with textile wealth that is willing to back the artist son - and this, in turn, allows for an unencumbered pursuit of a contemporary art form - both things that are unusual in China. The government, he says, doesn't bother him other than to provide 5 no-go zones for content: nudity, Falun Gong, Tibet, and two other independence struggles (these words came too quickly for me to recognize which ones). He says he is willing to live with this in exchange for the freedom he has to otherwise do as pleases. He speaks of Shanghai somewhat disparagingly, and the kind of policy that is creating "firecracker art" there - flashy shows that provide a big bang, and leave nothing behind. He gives an example of the government buying out the Boston Symphony's contracts in order to bring them over to open a new arts centre. This extravagance, he says, is driven by policy seeking to turn Shanghai into an "International City". He speaks of a more serious artistic scene in Beijing, especially situated in any work happening outside of policy control.
4) I take another cab to my hotel, and am delighted when I finally get there. In stark contrast to Shanghai, I am staying in a small, old Beijing courtyard hotel, situated near the middle of the city in a maze of back alleys. I meet American Alison Friedman for dinner (she has lived in Beijing for 12 years, and is the director of Ping Pong Arts). She says I'm lucky to be in a place like this. I agree. We walk along tiny alleyways, with washing, pets, and communal bathrooms, to get to a restaurant with cheap, plentiful and yummy food. The vibe is utterly different from Shanghai, and I like it.