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Suddenly three weeks in China seem a receding memory! Jet lag (and colds that awaited our return) are a reminder, though, of a hugely successful and enjoyable tour. The full effects of the company’s engagement in China will gradually become clear in time but it is obvious that Birmingham Royal Ballet made a substantial impression in China and particularly in the theatres in Beijing and Shanghai.

Sell-out performances were not necessarily guaranteed – the Company was new in China and Chinese New Year was imminent – however, there was no doubt that the world’s biggest migration of people (for China’s Spring Holiday) certainly did not affect our audiences and might have worked in the company’s favour.

Potential outcomes from the tour include:

1. Return visits to perform an ambitious repertoire – I believe we have a particularly suitable (and substantial) repertoire for China

2. Ongoing involvement with the British Council and Chinese organisations in learning and training programmes

3. Further ambassadorship for Birmingham and the West Midlands – we and our funders entertained some 400 individuals and organisations during the 2009 tour – these included big industrial giants like EADS (Airbus), Coca Cola (and McDonalds!), many universities and training institutions, trade organisations, hospitals, government ministries and development departments etc – our tour was used extremely well for business purposes

4. Greater access to non-public funds

Of course a big question was connection with audiences. Numbers were very good but I was especially interested in the reactions and attentiveness. The audience in Shanghai seemed clearly the most experienced – the Grand Theatre has been opened 10 years (so why don’t their lights and LX crew work?) – and this was obvious in terms of responsiveness. The beautiful NCPA in Beijing has only been open for 16 months – audiences were certainly warm and a great social mix. Goodness knows who pays £110 for a seat – we’ll never understand the ticketing arrangements and I certainly wouldn’t consider a future deal which involves the box office (we didn’t this time for info – phew)!

Performing at the Baiyun International Convention Centre in Guangzhou was a one-off pending the opening of the exciting new opera house in the city. It looks as though it will open in 2010 and certainly in time for the city to host the 2010 Asia Games. We are keeping in touch with the various authorities in Guangzhou – it would be great to be the first ballet company in the new (Zaha Hadid – designed) opera house. Perhaps we should wait for a few of the technical hitches to be ironed out but then how long is a piece of string?

I was thrilled with the Sinfonia’s concerts in Beijing and Shanghai – extremely good concert halls and wonderful playing – bravo Paul, Robbie, Jonathan and the Sinfonia. We are very fortunate to have these skills in-house. There seemed in both halls to be an obvious concert-going audience – particularly young in Shanghai and a good, enthusiastic reception. I believe this was the first Birmingham Royal Ballet tour in which the Sinfonia gave concerts – it won’t be the last…..

We are writing reports for our funders and our own records. Congratulations to the whole company for making the tour the success it was. Stresses and strains there were but the final result is something to be truly proud of. Well done to everyone and thank you very much!

Christopher Barron

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Creating the tour to China took three years of preparation. A number of issues needed to be resolved. Large sums of cash needed to be raised both in Birmingham and China.

Birmingham Royal Ballet needed to find a good colleague to work with in China – and I’m pleased to say that Cui Yang (Young) and team are working extremely hard to make the tour a big success.

We needed to pick the right time – for me, as much as anything, that was to do with finding the right (modern) venues to perform in, including one in Guangzhou. The latter was the most difficult as the new opera house being built there is behind schedule – we can look forward to going there in the future. Other blog entries have probably already described the difficulties at the Convention Centre in Guangzhou…..

But probably the greatest artistic and profile priority was to perform in the Egg (NCPA) in Beijing, this wonderfully designed arts centre by Tianenmen Square. It is a beautiful theatre with fabulous acoustics and miles of stage facilities. Sadly, the local LX crew are still inexperienced so Johnny and team have been up against it again here.

The Egg has been rechristened ‘The Bun’ by Pearl [Chesterman, Director for Learning]’s team. The migrant children who came to Tuesday’s rehearsal decided it look liked bread, so it became a bun, and they’ve drawn pictures of The Bun!

Apart from the early start, the company arrived painlessly on Sunday in Beijing from Guangzhou – coats and scarves on – just in time to put best frocks on for the Ambassador’s reception – this was a lovely occasion in the Ambassador’s Residence and Sir William Ehrman and his wife, Penny, were wonderful hosts. In anticipation, David said in his speech ‘there is nothing dancers like more than food’ and we were subsequently well fed with home food – just what was needed on a cold Sunday evening – and it started the week off extremely well. Sir William and Penny came to B&B last night and were hugely impressed. He is what is known in diplomatic circles as an ‘old China hand’. Clearly, he is a powerful figure here – when he arrived in the 70s (Cultural Revolution/Mao) the UK had 8 people in the Embassy. Today there are 400 to look after UK interests. He retires in a year’s time to become a farmer…

At each performance we have groups of our funders – our visit is being used extremely well for networking purposes. Amway, the Chinese sponsor, holds a press conference each week and entertains large numbers of guests – their sponsorship bought 5000 tickets across all of our performances. Amway has also produced big public displays and hundreds of banners for the tour. Birmingham University is using its time here imaginatively – representatives from various departments are seeking out new partnerships in various Chinese institutions and entertaining them each evening. AWM is inviting various clients and potential clients to performances etc. And so on.

For Keith [Longmore, Communications Director] and the Press and PR team, it is a bit of a daily game – we need to know numbers (we’d like to know who the guests are), we need to distribute tickets in advance to avoid pre performance shmozzles. We have to pay for the tickets so we don’t want to waste them. Keith has done a good deal with Young for tickets but they are up to £100 each. So far so good but the motto is ‘one day at a time’.

Another lesson is that pre planning is virtually a waste of time as we are making entertaining arrangements each week at each theatre. It’s the way over here – last minute…

Thank goodness for the Blackberries. Here’s an example – we invited all groups to come for 5.30 pm for a tour and reception before the performance. Suddenly security announced no entry to ‘the Bun’ before 6.30 pm so a million phone calls to be made to guests. It all happened.

I am delighted that the NCPA management has realised quickly that we are good news. We look fantastic on the stage and they are selling tickets – all remaining Beijing performances including Friday’s concert are sold out. The concert is sold entirely to China Life Insurance Co – let’s hope their guests are a good audience. But good news for NCPA and Birmingham Royal Ballet for the future.

The audiences are interesting – I have to say that audiences in China are historically unrewarding to play to – noisy, phones, in and out, all that irritating stuff. Here though, they are most attentive and quiet and give warm receptions in the right place – and we have had some good cheering at curtain calls. Quite a lot of cameras around – you can see the screens all over the theatre. The FOH staff here use those red pointers that are used at demonstrations to point out offenders during performances – stops them for a few minutes but no sense of being shamed, of course…

We are now half way through the tour – I was relieved that the lorries from Guangzhou with Romeo arrived last night safely after travelling the mountain passes. Paul [Grace, Technical Director], Doug [Nicholson, Head of Scenic Presentation] and team unloaded them overnight. For me that journey was high on the risk register after last year’s snow storms etc.

Onwards to the next bit… And Shanghai, here we come.

Christopher Barron.

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