As the curtains parted in a Beijing theatre renowned for staging the classical Peking Opera, an Indian dancer squealed and scampered to her position. Someone backstage shouted “mike nikalo” (remove the mike)!
India’s summer of dance diplomacy across China ended on Sunday with the last in a series of Bollywood dance shows. Bollywood can be the biggest cultural icebreaker for India in China, but the industry’s top stars and dance groups — said to be unaffordable for the official budget — were not part of the ongoing India festival to celebrate 60 years of diplomatic ties with China.
And it’s often assumed that the Chinese will appreciate the chance to watch even an average song and dance show because Beijing’s censors don’t import Bollywood movies.
China’s television audiences, however, have watched Chinese girls perform Bollywood dances more expertly than the dancers flown from India. As I watched the show, I recalled an afternoon with Zhang Jun, 74, the first Chinese woman to study classical dance in India. From 1957-2008, Zhang trained hundreds of Chinese girls to dance like Indians. At her apartment, I watched videos of Bollywood dances she choreographed for China Central Television. With the Taj Mahal as a backdrop, her students recreated songs from Umrao Jaan without missing a beat.
When the Chinese pay the equivalent of R1,400-plus for a ticket, they expect sophisticated stage effects and rigorously trained artists. Sunday’s show opened with diplomatic speeches and niceties from both sides. But the show was not packaged to make waves as the cultural gift from a vibrant economy catching up with China’s growth rate. The backdrops were a few blurry photographs of unincredible Indian scenes, like a picture of bangles. The theatre’s translation screen didn’t work, so the audience was none the wiser about Indian culture.
As the dancers ran out of new moves, a young Chinese man behind me slept. Others looked bemused or puzzled. Everybody stirred only for the Jai ho finale. The sleeping man woke up and grinned. Chinese girls went on stage to click photographs. So imagine the points Indian dance diplomacy will score if China gets to watch the best of genuine Bollywood.