In a short presentation to the group yesterday, I described the choreographer Zhang Junfeng as having a velevety Chinese smoker’s voice. He talks a lot to his dancers as he works with them. The tone is soft, almost hypnotic; the voice deep, though not so much rough or gravelly as richly burred. It’s a reminder, as if we needed one, that there is a materiality to speech, and that the choreographic process entails the transmission of corporeality as much as the embodiment of ideas.

For Junfeng’s dancers, then, it’s a kind of passive smoking: that somehow they incorporate the material effects of his habit into their muscles, movements, sensibilities. Minus the carcinogens, of course. More generally, passive smoking is a feature of social life in China that is striking to the non-smoking visitor from places where the default setting for public space is, as the sign in the Golden Peacock restaurant round the corner says, a ‘No Smoke Region’. And anyway, as far as I can tell, in places like the UK, smoking is in decline – except among dancers. The other day, I overheard a woman talking about her daughter: “She turned down a job offer from British American Tobacco. She said to me: ‘If the Chinese want to smoke themselves to death with their own cigarettes, that’s their choice – but I’m not going to persuade them to do the same with BAT’s'”.

The weather is changeable. Brilliant blue skies give way overnight to a hazy fug. A crisp, cooling breeze transforms into harmattan-like flurries of dust and sand that topples bicycles and launches litter briefly skywards. It’s played out in miniature when a smoker’s exhalations catch the light. Similarly, for the first few days I tramped the thoroughfares, wondering where the life had gone, and reflecting that Beijing was anything but human-scale. What, I wondered, is the place and value of dance in such a spaced-out city, where even crossing the road is a journey in itself. No wonder so many of the otherwise featureless modern office buildings fill their street-level retail spaces with foot massage parlours!

Of course, the human is here. Just behind the BDA, there’s a buzzing street scene, and as the heat of the day lifts from the pavements at about 6, the smells and scents of the place rise with it and separate out: flowers, fruit, piss. At night, the grilled meat stalls fire up: to order, you must enter a cloud of charcoal smoke, scented with fat and seasoned with szechuan pepper. At 1.30am the other night, I looked up from my low plastic stoll to see it shafted through with streetlight, like a nightsun. Yesterday, Shobana’s dancers were working on an unusually melliflous sequence. (I know ‘mellifluous’ refers to sound, and was going to invent ‘mellifluent’ to describe it, but given the point I began with, it seems apt enough). I said to Janet O’Shea, who arrived yesterday, that they looked like heavenly maidens, wafting through the clouds. Later, the interpretor told me that she translated one of Shobana’s instructions using the Chinese term ‘move like the clouds’.

Soon, I too will be moving through the clouds – substantially faster, but nowhere near as elegantly. I’ll breathe the rarified air of the plane, and perhaps commit to it some residues of the atmospheres I’ve been enveloped by over the course of my stay.

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