Vibrant colours light up the dome of the National Centre for Performing Arts, just a minute’s walk from the wide, open space at the famous Tiananmen Square in central Beijing. This grand building, known colloquially as The Egg for its shape, is where the city’s audiences get their fix of classical music, opera, ballet, theatre and Chinese opera. The nation’s biggest and best companies perform here regularly, alongside touring concerts and productions from all over the world. And it is not just for the elite – tickets are subsidized and there are often huge discounts on family tickets, so the place gets packed out with both young and old. One recent sell-out was the Globe’s touring Merchant of Venice with the enigmatic Jonathan Pryce as Shylock. Stefan Adegbola as the comic Launcelot Gobbo had audience members on stage, chanting at him in Chinese, really exciting the audience and, I thought, getting everyone on side. Perhaps they had only come for sneakily-taken photos of the Game of Thrones star, or perhaps reading the Chinese translation wasn’t quite as riveting as hearing Shakespeare’s prose, however, because about fifty per cent of the audience cleared out at the interval. The actors had probably been warned – this is normal, it happens every time.

Performers at the Beijing Broads © Beijing Broads
Performers at the Beijing Broads
© Beijing Broads

Fluctuating audience sizes aren’t a problem for Beijing’s open-mike events.

Comedy is booming in Beijing’s cultural heart, the winding alleyways built by the mongols, named hutongs. A stroll through the hutongs will bring you – however inadvertently – to a plethora of theatrical venues, most of which double as bars and event spaces in general. A favourite among expats, Hot Cat Club hosts a regular Wednesday evening Stand Up night, and there are four or five improv comedy teams of varying sizes who perform, tour and run free, open workshops. Spring brings a deluge of acts from across the country to participate in Beijing’s comedy festival, alongside the abundant local teams. There’s a bilingual team who perform in both English and Chinese and there’s even a women’s only group called Beijing Broads, who prove time and again that yes, women can be funny.

Storytelling is a big deal here, too. Competing for the Wednesday night spotlight is the weekly open-mike event spearheaded by American storyteller Sven Romberg at a hutong bar. Storytellers sign up to take the stage for a grand total of seven minutes (or less) and tell their story in whichever language they feel confident, which often leads to some humorous spontaneous translation by audience members. Chinese speakers often attend in order to practice their speaking and listening skills, as the majority of stories are told in English. Having run the event for well over a year, helping the community build storytelling skills, Romberg is now branching out into biweekly workshops and monthly story concerts reminiscent of New York City’s The Moth events.

For those who’d rather not risk watching performers flourish or flounder on stage, Chinese Opera performers are among the longest trained performers China has to offer. Known in China as Jingju, this traditional performance style is impressive to say the least. With piercingly high voices, dramatic makeup and costumes, and stunning acrobatics, there’s never a dull moment here. The Southern styles (particularly Sichuan opera) often involve artful face-changing scenes, in which a lead actor will literally change his face in full view of the audience. This is traditionally done using makeup that the actor manipulates with black dust or greasepaint, but most commonly done by switching between up to seventeen masks rapid-fire. There are often special events showcasing this Chinese tradition to foreigners en masse, with projected English subtitles that often include funny mistranslations.

One place you won’t get bogged down in translation is on Beijing’s animated music scene. From classical to jazz to punk-rock, Beijing’s got everything on offer, provided you know where to look. The classical music scene is pretty well provided for by the NCPA, whose newly improved website caters well for English speakers. What of the jazz and punk-rock I mentioned? Well, last year, three Beijing-based creatives established Loreli, which is an excellent survey of undiscovered talent in any genre covered by their ‘Look, Read, Listen’ sections.

Rebecca, a performer with Pojie Arts © Yan Lei (Handicap International)
Rebecca, a performer with Pojie Arts
© Yan Lei (Handicap International)

Dance is all over the place here, in theatres, studios and in the streets. Nightly in Beijing’s public spaces crowds of older women gather around speakers rigged to a stationary motorbike at dusk, where they’ll boogie freestyle or follow along class style as a plethora of music genres blast out.

Beijing’s big venues get big acts, but, interestingly, some internationally known Chinese dance groups have taken a little longer to conquer the market inside China. Tao Dance Theatre, who’ve performed at London's Sadler’s Wells several times, showcased their work in Beijing for the first time last October. Their audience at the sold-out NCPA was blown away in an unforgettable evening, not least so for Beijing-born choreographer Tao Ye himself. (read our review here) If arts-for-a-cause is your thing, then you’ve got a bunch of choices in Beijing. My personal favourite is the small but rapidly growing non-profit Pojie Arts, who provide free dance and movement therapy workshops to people with disabilities in Beijing. While the workshops themselves are private unless you’re a volunteer, Pojie’s public presence is twofold: first is a mixed ability performance group who open their biannual shows to all.

Performers of Pojie Performance Arts Group © James Wasserman
Performers of Pojie Performance Arts Group
© James Wasserman

Second is No Lights No Lycra, which is the Beijing branch of a global dance movement begun in Melbourne, Australia with the core notion that dance is for everyone. “There is no light, no lycra, no teacher, no steps to learn, no technique, just free movement” and you’re dancing for charity. 100% of your 50 renminbi (about £5) entrance helps Pojie Arts continue providing free workshops to those who need them.