Tony Hall: Noises Off

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

Related Topics

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

Do you have an issue to raise in Noises Off? Email us at:

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Research Manager - Quantitative/Qualitative

£32000 - £42000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Piper Ryan Randall leads a pro-Scottish independence rally in the suburbs of Edinburgh  

i Editor's Letter: Britain survives, but change is afoot

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Some believe that David Cameron is to blame for allowing Alex Salmond a referendum  

Scottish referendum: So how about the English now being given a chance to split from England?

Mark Steel
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam