Journey to China

by Brian Quirt

I’m flying to Beijing. Thoughts on internationalism occupy me while on a flight that not only leaves my home city on a perfect fall day but one that unexpectedly flies over the lake north of Toronto on which our cottage is built. One of North America’s many Eagle Lakes, its wings are formed by two large bays, one of them where my grandfather logged the land in the teens and 1920s; at the “head” of the lake his father built a chapel for a village now long dispersed. Where I was married. From 20,000-plus feet, the beach on “our” land is clearly visible, as is the rocky island in the bay — unsurprisingly, called Rocky Island — which we’ve looked upon, several generations of Quirts, for nearly 100 years.

The plane flew on and although our destination is far to the west, our direction is north over Lake Nipissing to James Bay and rapidly into Arctic airspace, the plane filled with Canadians, a large Argentinean tour group (love their caps), and, naturally, many Chinese.

All of us — in one way or another — seeking connection, a view of the world beyond our own lives, the sight of beautiful, strange, unknown things that may reshape our lives back home, or enhance them, or perhaps more likely, distract us from them.

It does seem appropriate that we are flying northward, traveling through a truly unknown land, to reach China, much as the explorers — Franklin, et al — once attempted to do.

They also sought contact, new ideas, commercial opportunities, escape. It — travel, adventure, escape — seems so easy today; just time and money are required, and suddenly fourteen hours later one walks into Beijing. Not that time or money are easily come by — we all think we have too little of each; and often that is true. But many of us are rich (relatively) in both regards, and a journey such as this is a powerful reminder to wield both more wisely, more adventurously, and to greater effect.

But, still, why crave international contact? What can, should, ought it offer to our work in the theatre, if not to our own lives?

That is the quest at hand. To identify for PACT (the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres, which I’m representing at a theatre conference in Xiamen (shaw-men), China), its members, its leaders, and its “stakeholders,” what a vast international network such as the International Theatre Institute (ITI) can offer. And, indeed, what it can offer that is unique, which opportunities for contact and collaboration it presents that are not already available through the plethora of international organizations that any Canadian performing arts organization could link to, such as IETM, The Fence, IPAY, APAP, or ISPA.

Are the values and goals of ITI in some way different due to its origins within UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization)? Does its particular mandate — to foster “the power of the performing arts as an indispensable bridge-builder for mutual international understanding and peace” (www.iti-worldwide.org) — raise the bar for the relationships and partnerships that it encourages and supports? More tangibly, what might members of PACT gain from interaction with ITI’s Centres around the world, and how might PACT cultivate a rich palette of exchange for individuals in Canada with artists, administrators, and academics committed to theatre and dance elsewhere in the world?

And how to ensure that this is more than cultural tourism?

By that I mean the visiting of cultural sites, viewing of artworks from other cultures, encountering the stories — ancient and new — of other cultures without participating in them. Perhaps my assumption that such a thing is shallow — even as I regularly do it myself — is unworthy. Even a relatively brief, surface encounter with another culture can still have impact; even that level of cultural interaction can provide valuable perspective on one’s own culture by putting its assumptions, prejudices, preferences, and limitations under a microscope. My trip will begin with several days in Beijing, one of the world’s leading destinations for cultural tourists. My time there may turn out to be the ideal preparation, the door opening as it were, to the ITI Congress in Xiamen and all the possibilities that at this point it still presents for me and for PACT. Ah, the anticipation, the feeling of waiting in the theatre lobby, then in the seats, then the lights going down or the performers entering the space. A story is to be enacted.

Now, below, snow and ice. We are well and truly in the Arctic, soaring above it, true, a portal to a world far to the west, the Far East, so-called, and all it may offer.

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The Journey to Xiqu (shi-chu) was the theme of the 33rd Congress of the International Theatre Institute, held in Xiamen, September 19–24, 2011. Subtitled Empowering the Performing Arts, the Congress was designed to immerse delegates in Chinese performance traditions, ancient and contemporary, while addressing new and bold directions for ITI itself.

Xiqu is a term describing the world of Chinese opera, an overarching idea of creation and presentation that encompasses the many genres of Chinese music theatre. The focus on it as a conference theme revolved not only around the forms’ ancient histories, but more importantly as a cry for retaining the traditional elements of Xi in the face of the onslaught of Western modes of storytelling and performance. Many of the sessions that addressed Xiqu dealt with it as an endangered species under siege by contemporary cultural trends. Many speakers debated the degree to which Xiqu can or must respond to Western cultural tropes and to the accelerated pace of modern international culture. Should Xiqu adapt to regional differences and Western traditions, or should it be preserved at the risk of becoming a static form, a museum of historical performance ideas? Or, as one speaker contended, perhaps such a museum is worth having, if only as an inspiration for new work. The bottom line: if it is adapted, will that dilute or destroy Xiqu and the underlying principles of its approach to performance? If it is not adapted, will it wither, die and not even be valuable as a museum of past genres, of how some of our ancestors told their stories?

To read more, go to pages 14-20 in the LMDA Review.

This article was first published in Review, LMDA’s Journal of Dramaturgy (Volume 22, #1, Fall/Winter 2012).

It is based in part on material first published by the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres (PACT).

Photos from the Congress can be found on the Facebook pages for PACT and Nightswimming.

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