The World Tour
The Curtain Rises
The Great Hall of the People on Beijing's Tiananmen Square is accustomed to choreography. For more than four decades, the vast auditorium echoed to the well-rehearsed speeches of China's communist rulers, urging their compatriots to yet greater sacrifices in the name of Socialism. Alternatively, it rang with plaudits for its leader, Chairman Mao Zedong, the Great Helmsman, each of whose appearances were greeted by the thunderous ovations of thousands of "parliamentarians" gathered from all corners of China for the spectacle.
The auditorium of the Hall of the People can seat more than 8,000 people. Its dimensions symbolized the place where the unity of the nation was displayed. It was a perfect location for mass culture, such as the staging of "proletarian opera"&8212;as long as this did not interfere with its pre-eminent political role.
Most of the former uses to which the Great Hall was put are now overlooked. They are, at best, oddities from the past, not unlike the giant portrait of Chairman Mao that continues to flutter in a corner of Tiananmen. The Great Hall of the People is still home to the National People's Congress, the Chinese parliament, but the bill of fare of its extracurricular activities has changed radically.
In the autumn of 2003, it hosted performances of the Irish dance spectacle Riverdance. The show is based on the Irish tradition of step or tap dancing, and the music, written by Irishman Bill Whelan, blends traditional Irish folk music, Japanese drumming, flamenco, and modern dance rhythms. The 70 strong troupes of Riverdancers were in Beijing in response to a personal invitation made by Premier Zhu Rongji during a visit to the Irish Republic.
Riverdance started out modestly enough. It was an intermission piece in the Eurovision Song Contest staged in Dublin in 1994. The winning song is long forgotten, but Riverdance goes from strength to strength. Its success has been global. It has been staged in 27 countries, and it is estimated that a quarter of the planet's population may have seen it through television broadcasts. In spite of the show's phenomenal successes in venues such as Madison Square Garden in New York, Tokyo's International Forum, and Wembley in London, success in China was a dream that had driven the show's organizers for years. The Great Hall of the People was just one stop on a tour of the Far East comprising 46 shows in Malaysia and Hong Kong, as well as China.
The response was amazing (as it had been when Riverdance visited Japan); the Chinese media gave blanket coverage to Riverdance in the week preceding the first show. Nevertheless, there was nervousness among the cast and organizers as to how a Chinese audience would respond to something so novel and so different. The Chinese are accustomed to large-scale spectacles, but these usually have a very distinct and crude ideological purpose. Riverdance makes no such demands on potential audiences.
The worries proved misplaced. Each of the six shows in Beijing was sold out, and two extra matinee performances had to be included. In addition to the Great Hall of the People, the Riverdancers staged a performance at a site on the Great Wall of China.
Riverdance caught my attention because, though it may have deep Irish roots, it is very much an international phenomenon. Its original stars were the American dancers Michael Flatley and Jeanne Butler. Its current lead male dancer, Conor Hayes, is Australian, and the Riverdance troupe includes dancers from the United States, Spain, Russia, and Kazakhstan, as well as Ireland. So international is Riverdance's style that it has been rubbished by cultural purists in Ireland.
Much of the financial backing for Riverdance came from the United States, but the experience and excitement generated by it flows around the world, recognizing nothing so puny as a national border. The audiences who witnessed the Riverdance spectacle in Beijing reacted with more genuine enthusiasm than to any of the clichés that fell from the lips of the Great Helmsman.
The symbolism of the performance was not lost on those involved. Bill Whelan commented, "Riverdance is a political thing as much as a cultural thing."
Riverdance in the Great Hall of the People is a suitable metaphor for the global economy. It originated in the Western world. Its roots in Ireland, one of the global economy's most dynamic success stories, are significant. It blends elements from Ireland's culture with features from other cultures and backgrounds, which are, in turn, performed by people from throughout the world. It was originally choreographed by an American and was performed on the largest stage in one of the world's fastest-growing economies: China. Riverdance is not insular, and no one could say that it is bland.