(Andrew Dickson’s article appeared in the Guardian, 11/8.)
An elaborate green rug has been laid out in the centre of the room. Above it hang red paper lanterns, trembling in the air-conditioning. In a corner, teenage boys in T-shirts and jogging bottoms are warming up. Several have flipped themselves upside-down and are doing headstands against the wall. Suddenly, there’s a caterwauling of fiddles and a detonation of percussion. A female performer glides forward. The boys race towards her, clutching wooden swords, launching into barrel rolls and rocketing leaps. The caterwauling intensifies. Unperturbed by the thicket of bodies scissoring within inches of her face, the performer begins to sing in a high, pure voice.
This is not, however, a performance – it’s a press conference, at the HQ of the National Peking Opera Company. All around me, in this anonymous office block in central Beijing, journalists are scribbling in their pads. If you have never experienced Chinese opera in the flesh, there are few things to compare it to, at least in the west. It’s part gymnastics, part martial arts, performed by people who appear to have put on every single item in the dressing-up box – all to a soundtrack of squealing strings and yelping, nasal singing.
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