Fearghus Ó Conchúir Choreographer and Dance Artist

Label: Beijing

May 16, 2010

EXPO visit: Improvisation in the Beijing Traffic

Three weeks in Beijing have passed quickly and tomorrow I leave for Shanghai and the whole Expo experience. As always, being in China has taught me a lot about myself, my habits and preconceptions, nowhere more so than in relation to traffic and travel.
I spent the first week waiting for Platform China whose studio that I’m staying to provide the promised bicycle and in the meantime took a lot of buses in and out of town. I hated having to wait, being constrained by an unfathomable timetable and being jostled and squashed. When Platform China couldn’t provide a tall enough bicycle, I rented one myself (of course now I am wiser thanks to everyone’s post factum counsel that it would have been cheaper to buy a bike than rent one). Having a bike restored my much valued independence. It’s clear to me that I am willing to expend a considerable amount of physical energy to secure that independence as I have cycled hour long trips across the city rather than subject myself to buses or even the uncertainty that a taxi might be taking you for a ride. So that’s one lesson about independence.

The other thing I learned cycling in Beijing is about improvisation. The rules of the road are baffling to me – more baffling than the language. People cycle the wrong way, pedestrians walk in the middle of the road and with passive aggression ignore the constant hooting of cars and bikes. Buses pull in in front of you, pinning you to the kerb and then stop but pull out again when you try to overtake them. Since the choreography isn’t clear to me, I have to improvise, alongside everyone else who seems to be improvising. I imagined that this improvisation had a structure, a set of shared rules which I might not know but I assumed everyone else did. However, when I see the accidents, the battered cars and the injured cyclists, I do wonder if that’s the case. More than anything I am ground down by what appears to me to be the discourtesy of such lawlessness. Whether or not I am completely misreading the situation, it is the fact of this care for courtesy that I notice in myself. Courtesy of course doesn’t leave much room for surprises.

I think about improvisation because working with Xiao Ke on Dialogue for the past two years has been the most sustained engagement with improvisation that I have undertaken. I have grown more comfortable with the process but only after we’ve established clear parameters for the improvisation. This version of Dialogue which we will perform in Shanghai has two new artists involved: Feng Hao, an experimental musician who is making a name for himself on the improvised music scene in Beijing and He Long, a video artist who does a lot of live visuals for music events. Both have brought a youthful energy to the piece. Meanwhile Xiao Ke and I have refined the structure of the piece, simplifying the line and relaxing in to our growing familiarity with each other.

My tai chi and qi gong practice have given me access to a different movement style that I’ve used a lot in Dialogue. In previous versions I was anxious about representing the kind of muscular physicality that I had considered a hallmark of my work. Now I don’t feel the need so much to that. Maybe I’m older. Maybe I’m tired. Maybe it just isn’t necessary.

With Match and Niche to perform after Dialogue, however, I’m curious to see whether I can still tap in to that muscular engagement upon which Match in particular was constructed.

June 11, 2009

Beijing Parkour – making sense of Beijing

The Goethe institute in China has published a pamphlet called Beijing Parkour, assembling a series of maps and elevations of various districts in Beijing that together creatively revisioning space in the way that Parkour encourages.

The pamphlet contains an interview with Michael Kahn-Ackermann. He was an exchange student in Beijing in the seventies and returned there as director of the Goethe Institute in China in 2006.

In the interview, conducted by Shi Jian and Cui Qiao, the institute’s Commissioner for Cultural Programs, Kahn-Ackermann discusses his own cross-cultural experiences:

Cui Qiao: What do you think Beijing is lacking?
MKA: Beijing lacks – I’m not sure what it’s called in Chinese, but it’s the urban atmosphere of a major metropolis. Beijing has it all except for that particular atmosphere of its own. Shanghai can’t compare to Beijing in many respects, and from a cultural perspective Shanghai is a desert, but it has that atmosphere, which you can sense if you’re walking around. Beijing’s problem is not one of size but one of space. It’s empty, regardless of the area you’re talking about.
SJ: Not the notion of emptiness in traditional Chinese culture, but geniune emptiness.
MKA: Pure emptiness.
SJ: There’s no urbanity.
MKA: Right, no urbanity. I feel that the fundamental issue is that old Beijingers have a sense of mission. In the 70s, Beijingers could still feel that it was “my Beijing” – they “administered” the city; sure, they way they administered it was not by demonstrating, not like the citizens of metropolises in the west, where if you want to put up a tall building, a crowd will form immediately in opposition. Not that type, but it still was absolutely an identification with the city. No matter how large the city grew, you could have that sense of mission: this is my city, this is the city I want, this is where I was born, where I grew up, and I will die in this city. Today, because of Beijing’s changes, that sense of mission is gone: these changes have nothing to do with me, I’m someone whose life has been transformed, entirely involuntarily. I feel that this is not a problem unique to Beijing, it’s shared by all of China’s major cities.

What interests me here is the sense that the physical transformation of the city has deprived its residents of the means to identify with their environment. Kahn-Ackermann doesn’t quite explain the difference between earlier change (‘No matter how large the city grew, you could have that sense of mission.’) and this more recent phase of development that has rendered the city empty, even as it is full of gargantuan building projects. Is it the scale of this latter development, that bears no relation to human proportions, that is so alienating?

I’m still flummoxed by the huge towers in the Central Business District. I can rarely find the entrance. Intending to join a friend for drinks in the China Bar at the top of the Park Hyatt in Guomao, I spent a half hour trying to locate the building when I was just across the road from it and another ten minutes pacing the perimeter of the building trying to find the entrance which, in case you need, is on the inside of the building complex. I just don’t know how to read these constructions.


May 07, 2009


In the morning I hear firecrackers and late in the evening too. It puzzles me as I don’t know of any festivals going on at the moment. I asked my composer friend why people are setting of firecrackers and he explained that in the villages people set off firecrackers to celebrate the completion of various stages of construction: the foundations, the walls, the roof. Each stage is also an opportunity to invite the neighbours to a celebratory meal. So in this culture, each house is also an exercise in community building. A wall can bring people together as well as separate them.

The frequency of the firecrackers in this small village suggests that the building boom hasn’t stopped here.

April 30, 2009

Bei Gao Studios

I’ve just arrived in Beijing and am holding jet lag at bay with the western food I bought en route from the airport. I’m installed in one of the Bei Gao Studios (BG3) that are run by the Red Gate Gallery.

The studios are in Fei Jia Cun, a village not far from the airport, beyond the 5th Ring of the city – that means far out from the centre. It’s a quiet place full of artists’ studios and galleries like the Imagine Gallery that’s directly opposite my space. I’m still figuring out how the whole artists’ compound scenario meshes with the local village and its inevitable building projects undertaken by men in flip flops and slip on loafers.

My studio is dusty and grungy and yet exciting precisely because it isn’t pristine. There is plenty of floor space to work in, lots of random bits of furniture and the detritus of past residents to make possible the construction of an imaginative architecture within the space. The floor is concrete so it will demand a particular kind of response if I’m to survive physically but these restrictions are also stimuli.

What will I do?

Want to suggest something?