A dark figure traverses the dim stage. Circuits, QR codes and tribal patterns run up its lithe frame. A single string gathers a thousand tiny strings and forms a melody, drawing the intrigued alien into a maze of glittering towers and ancient structures. A spotlight flashes across its face. Luminous lips tremble. They speak of strange encounters and strangers with…
In the skies…
Behind the Scenes
The Dancer has not been painted. Lights not set. Stage as bare as they come. The show must start at 730pm.
Where is Rachel!
Rachel is my Maker-Collaborator. She has the lights, body paint, stage set and has been on the way all day.
Activate Plan B.
Quick! Get me a ladder. Which ladder? There’s no ladder.
Nadine jumps onto the table, Uncle Dai holds it firm so that she doesn’t come tumbling down, I take centre stage. We angle all the bulbs in this Phenomenal – that’s the name of the venue – ceiling towards the centre. Maybe we can create the effect of a spotlight. It won’t be the same, but close. At the very least the Dancer will be visible. As will the Musician.
What about costume?
I was counting on the paint and black light effect. But it looks like I’ll have to strut around a glaring white stage in minuscule shorts and the boldness of an Iguana.
But what about the soundtrack?
Marco had woven music into the random conversations, street ambiance and general chaos that I’d captured around the city. After a quick debrief, he’d polished the track and sent it to my phone earlier in the day.
Now, I do not want to be in the category of workmen who slam their tools for insolence, but my good old Samsung S4 Zoom is rather too clever. It picks up on my mood and swings right along with it. For instance, when I am in a panic, exactly an hour away from the grand finale of my prestigious Africa Centre residency, with nothing set at all, the smarty-pants phone gets all excited and chooses that moment right there to freeze! So, I cannot download Marco’s genius soundtrack. And every time I think to cajole the device, restart it, call Marco or come up with some such sage solution, 1001 thoughts get in the way, such as,
Where IS Rachel?
It’s a WeChat message. Rachel will need help carrying materials up.
I race down the corridor, jump into the elevator, rattle to the ground floor and jump out. No Rachel. I look around and then again. No trace of a little lady with boards and cans. I get back into the elevator and take a forlorn ride back up to the 5th. I arrive at the Phenomenal – that’s the name of the space – door.
Thin pieces of wood, paper-weight boards, a tiny suitcase and four small tins of paint are on the floor.
I want to ask where the rest of the set is…
My installations are super light! Rachel cuts the thought short.
Nadine grabs the paints. We go backstage. Well, not quite – just on the other side of the room. A stack of shelves stands between us and the soon to be ‘auditorium’.
Rachel goes off to build the set.
Do you need help?
I cannot tell if she is hyperventilating or ventilating at all. But her eyes reassure me. They have that forget-Rome-Shenzhen-was-built-in-a-day look.
Oh but we’ll need black plastic bags, she yells back.
Which black plastic bags? I shout over the shelves.
Black plastic trash bags to cover the entire white wall or else…
OR ELSE what?
Or else the installation will be washed out!
Must we really have black plastic trash bags?
Nadine turns on some wacky music. It should soothe the nerves. Usually does, she tells me.
The first guest is here.
Nadine has painted half a leg and an arm. She steps back to behold her master-piece-to-be and gasps. I can’t tell if she is shocked or awed. Rachel walks in and staggers back at the sight. There’s no mirror here so I am relying on these articulate expressions to tell me just how great I look.
The computer cannot read your phone… your music won’t play.
I do not know how she figured out that Marco had the final track, or if Marco by some telepathic powers sensed that I was truly in a bind, but by either of those ways, the track was quickly sent to Maryann’s phone and she agreed to play it on cue. But what’s the cue?
In the skies
The room is filling up.
Rachel runs in back-stage.
Is the set somewhat existent now?
She’s awfully quiet. She runs out.
Maryann is pacing. It’s almost her bed time and I can tell she’s had a long day. I wouldn’t say she’s in the jolliest of humours.
5 more minutes, I assure her.
A thought enters my head.
Make this part of the show. Go finish this paint job on stage.
Genius! I quite like that idea actually!
But uncertainty gets the better of me. And anyway, it already is a part of the show. The audience is trickling backstage – acquaintances and strangers are snapping and chatting and Nadine & I are surrounded by a sea of flashing cameras.
I met a group of photographers on WeChat recently. They call themselves the Shenzhen Amateur Photo and Movie group. In truth, the name does not do them any justice, for they show up with lenses as long as a grown man’s hand and their shots could inspire 201 world class exhibitions. As if they heard me, they recently changed their name to Shenzhen Photo and Movie Lovers. Better. Much better I would say. Anyway, they are here too. They shoot close and far and left and right and make Nadine & I feel like we’re starring on America’s Next Top Model. It seems the show has inadvertently started. We could forget mystery and the making of surprise entrances now.
I have not seen the stage yet. I trust that Rachel knows what she’s doing. We have not tested the lights. All the cues are in my head. I don’t know if this paint will glow as promised.
Let’s just activate Plan B.
But who will turn on the lights for me at just the right moment? In stage-biz, timing is everything. The wrong light at the right moment creates the wrong moment.
Nadine brushes on her final strokes. She has to go. Wishes she could stay to turn on the lights, which she risked her legs to re-position, but has an important appointment. I think she has done enough already and I think I am stuck.
Maryann’s patience wears out. She introduces the Artist of the night.
I march in.
Uncle Dai, bless him, gets up to find me a chair. I don’t know why. He knocks the zither, it rattles to the ground, an anxious murmur runs through the room. We put the nervous instrument back on its stand.
Do you remember gingerbread man? The cookie that ran off the baking pan? Well, at this point, the show gets a life all its own. The reins are grabbed from me by a calm boldness and I hear a voice say,
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to our experiment. Tonight, you enter our creative process… ”
A conversation between Dancer and Light-Maker ensues, as if there is no one in the room but the two.
Shall we try scene 1 with the house lights on?
What would be the point of the black light then?
Right. It’s a black light. Some darkness would be good.
Does it work though?
There’s only one way to find out.
Dancer runs to the switch.
A dark form appears.
The Light-Maker follows. Shadows fall across the wall – a mysterious, magical world of villages and malls. They grow high, wide and small. Strings of an enchanting zither wind in and out of the blue haze. An ancient melody guides the alien through the enchanting maze.
Dancer and Light-Maker stop and snap back into the Phenomenal –that’s the name of the venue- room.
Should we try a different ambiance?
Well, I quite like the bluish wash… what if we layer it with the spotlight?
Give me a cue when you’re ready.
Now would be a good time.
The Light-Maker has transformed the space into an ethereal universe with two simple lights, one handmade. Only in Shenzhen could one design and build an entire stage and lighting set in half a day. Do not try this anywhere else.
Uncle Dai picks up his Pipa and makes it sing, reminiscing on times gone by. The Dancer tells a story of her fiery fling with Shenzhen.
Bold, mysterious, clever eyes
Bore through me like sticks
She leaps and spins and speaks of the people she has met…Eyes… on the bus on the streets on the metro…Curious eyes follow her… watermelon vendors and lost dreams…Wise eyes… strangers and odd conversations. Yan jin everywhere. Spaces that have embraced and rejected her. Arms wide open and doors shut tight. Wandering through a city full of colour and dizzying technology and smiles. Shy smiles.
Cue Marco’s track.
Synthetic beats snatch the Dancer back into the maze. Voices and noises guide and misguide. Yan jin follow her everywhere. She’s never alone.
Two little girls hop onto the stage. Their delicate frames tell stories, which they made up just the previous night.
One is an injured baby bird, the other a willow tree. The birdling, her wounds heal. She can fly! She flutters her wings forwards and backwards and around the city. The willow tree grows into a grandmother tree. The wind blows her back and forth and away from the imaginary sea, ‘til bird and tree meet at Uncle Dai’s feet.
‘Kampala si bizimbe’
A saying from my home town
A city is not its buildings
But you Shenzhen
You have dazzled me
With your lights, cameras and action
Still, I see your soul.
Oh yes I see your soul
On the bus
101 of us
Stuck together like sesame snacks
And those eyes
Like stars in the skies
Asking me why
Bringing me back into Now
Into Spaces that breath out loud
The audience is drawn in. They toe their way into the shadowy world of the Dancer and the Light-Maker. Carried away on Uncle Dai’s brisk melody, they build their own fantasies, until the music fades.
“The future is swallowing my past,” said the City to the Artist, “but if you look into my eyes, you will see my soul.”
Photos by Marlon Villaverde