Tony Hall: Noises Off

Down come the walls: why we were right to take the Royal Ballet to China

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In terms of Chinese history, this invasion of the middle kingdom is small. But in our terms, getting the entire Royal Ballet Company with all the supporting technical teams to China is a logistical nightmare. It involves moving some 150 people from Covent Garden to Beijing, and then on to Shanghai and Hong Kong with performances in Tokyo on the way. The plan of action is laid out in our little red book, which contains everything from who is on what flight to tips on what food to eat.

For the past fortnight, everyone has been ensconced in the Beijing Hotel, a few minutes walk from Tiananmen Square. It used to be the tallest building in the city – so much so, that when it was under construction, the then Chinese Prime Minister, Zhou Enlai, said that from his office he could see workers on the top of the hotel, and if he could see them, "they can see me". A series of mock-imperial buildings were erected to shield the leadership compound from prying eyes. Now, after a decade of astonishing change, the hotel's height is commonplace.

The Royal Ballet has launched the Beijing Cultural Festival at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, a new and beautiful building just off Tiananmen Square. Its enormous dome encloses a theatre, a concert hall and an opera house. It is building on an imperial scale.

You cannot underestimate the skill, expertise and nerve needed to move three productions to a new theatre. The technical and lighting teams and stage management are the storm troopers; what they pull off is awesome. The dancers had to get to know a new, labyrinthine building. Their rehearsal schedule was packed, yet some of them made it to the Great Wall or found time for an early morning trip round the Forbidden City. Extras were chosen from among local people. They were picked in part to fit the costumes but needed to be told what to do. A stray footman could cause havoc. And then the conductor had to rehearse the National Ballet of China Symphony Orchestra, which had never played the score for one of our ballets, Manon, before.

Is it all worth it? "It means so much to us to have the Royal Ballet here now," said a young woman to me after one of the performances. She had joined in the whoops and cheers that had ended that evening's Sleeping Beauty. The next night, we had an even bigger audience when we were broadcast across the whole of China on state television.

There is real appreciation, too, that we have dedicated all our performances

to the victims of the earthquake in Sichuan. And there is a real value given to artistic contacts with the Royal Ballet. The Director of the National Ballet of China, Madam Zhou, told me: "In the Cultural Revolution, a big wall was thrown up. We couldn't compare ourselves with what was going on outside China. Now it's so important for us to watch and to learn."

In a basement studio of the National Centre for the Performing Arts, another wall was coming down. Our education team was working with 28 young Chinese and a group of teachers. Within an hour and a half, they are all producing their own, short, dance piece. To me it seems miraculous.

Cultural diplomacy is as important now as it has ever been. But it feels like a leaden phrase to describe what has been going on here. For me, it has reaffirmed the fact that contacts between artists, staff and audiences from two completely different cultures really matter. You can feel it in the laughter and the applause.

Tony Hall is chief executive of the Royal Opera House. The Royal Ballet tour to China is supported by Rio Tinto

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