Tag Archive: dance

Through the mists that move in slow tides around the mountains, the Nian descends upon the village.

This is ancient China.  The village is small, bordered by rice paddies and low fences that encapsulate the slow-grazing herds upon which the villagers rely.

The Nian is a horned beast, nubs of smooth bone protruding from a shaggy knotted mane.  Its teeth and tusks are striated yellow; its breath reeks of the furnace in its belly where a cocktail of acids has been eroding its stomach walls.  It is ravenous.

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We step out of the hotel room onto rain-browned pavements.  Umbrellas bob up and down behind rows of parked cars or crawling buses.  We head up Portland Street, then turn down Princess Street towards the town hall.

This is modern Manchester: cosmopolitan, restless, crowded.  It is January 6th 2011, the first Sunday after the Chinese New Year.  It is the day of the festival.

At first the crowds are thin – normal weekend crowds.  But from this direction the square in front of the town hall is hidden by the city library; turning the corner, we see dense groups of people, young and old, piled against the barriers erected in front of the hall’s entrance, around another specially-prepared stage, and clotted in front of the row of stalls selling steaming food and nick-nacks.

The air smells like spring onions.  In another direction, the wind erases all scents and the air is only cold, but clear.  Lanterns, in red, are strung above our heads.

Everyone awaits the dragon.

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This is ancient China, the stalking ground of the Nian.  It is not the colourful creature of today’s parades; it is an animal, thick with the stink of matted belly hair and claws sheathed in ages-old dried blood.

It strikes down like lightning, taking up a goat, scattering chickens.  Feathers only partly muffle the strangled bleating.  Wooden doors slam open against huts as the villagers become aware of the beast’s resurgence.  They can smell its arrival in the still, damp air.  Its low growl turns over in the mist like a thunderhead, rolls away, rolls away.

There are children planting rice in the waterlogged fields.  The dead goat lies uneaten in the muddy thoroughfare.

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This is modern Manchester, where the rampage of a 175-foot dragon is curbed by the use of a hypnotic sceptre.  It is hard for us to see the dozens of men and women supporting the undulating body of the grinning dragon, but we can spot the tag-team method they use to replace tired puppeteers with eager, rested ones.

A gong beats rhythmically amongst the booming of drums.  There is no melody, only rhythm.

To the pulse of the drums the dragon is lured away, out of the fenced arena, out of the square, to shimmer down street after crowded street with its entourage of costumed associates.

In its wake, dancing lions make a cheerful chase in front of the crowd, ringing bells and shaking their ribbons, blinking lazily like idiot courtiers.

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This is ancient China, where the Nian steals away a screaming child, screaming child, silent child, and distantly a family mourns.

The village, through experience, has grown used to the Springtime visits of the monster – here the Springtime comes in the first month of the year.  But there is sometimes no stopping its vengeful, hunger-driven attacks on the children of the village.

Night falls.  The villagers await its return, but they are prepared.  When next it arrives, galloping down the slopes of the mountain under a milky moon, they have made it small in their minds and hearts.

Through the sudden application of gong and firecracker, they drive the beast back.  It is also, they have discovered, afraid of the colour red.  The hue of blood ripples in the cool night-wind, a wave farewell to the fearful thing.  But even as it bellows and lurches away, they toss food to pacify it.

They know that it will be back next year.

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We are moving towards the narrow grid of streets that is Modern Manchester’s China Town, proudly organised behind its impressive Ming-style arch in concentric squares around its open centre.

It has growing dark.  It’s too easy to get crushed in the barely-moving crowds.  Pressed in on all sides, we try to glimpse the wares in each of the stalls that line every street: red lanterns, red ribbons, lucky coins strung together with red, red, red.  One of us buys a charm, the other a painted gourd.  We both have tiny paper dragons.

Where the congestion is worst, we see signs of activity and good humour.  Two figures in rounded demon heads are running in and out of doorways; they dance within the restaurants and shops of China Town until they are pelted with bits of cabbage or beans.  The two Nians twist away, perturbed but bobbing smoothly in the doorways, and find another place to invade.

This is the evolution of the legend.  It is believed, I’m told, that the Nians still exist.  Unseen by man (the firecrackers, the gongs, the colour red were all too successful in driving it into hiding), they prowl the fog-laced mountains.  Some live under the sea, water-dragons subsisting on fish or clumps of seaweed.

Above China Town, the sky explodes with light and colour.

This is a new year.

— db


Parade About Town

I have already pointed out some of the highlights and lowpoints of Sheffield.  Like pretty much any other city in the world, it has its contrasts.  It isn’t without its attractions however, many of which come clustered in the summer season when we expect it to rain, but only does most of the time.

The “Lord Mayor of Sheffield Day” this month began with a parade from the Peace Gardens.  The Gardens were built as part of Sheffield’s ‘Heart of the City’ project apparently in the 1930s, but only officially given the Peace Gardens moniker The Year of Our Lord 1985, when this constructor of painful sentences was born.

Parade in Blue

OOM-pah OOM-pah OOM-pah (etc)

The parade begins with the arrival of a marching brass band.  It’s the police – with trumpets.  They all look rather pleased to be out and about, dressed in their finest.  Instruments glinting in the rare sunshine.  Cheeks pink and lacey with veins.  The bompah-bompah-bompah sounds vaguely familiar.  Competant at least, right up until their arrival at the Gardens, where classes from something like thirty schools are waiting in costume.

Each school class has been designated a country, and together they represent a united world.  Somehow they all manage to avoid cringeworthy stereotyping – it would only spoil the mood if the Krauts showed up as lederhosen-wearing bratwurst-munchers and pissed off half the city’s European visitors.  Their interpretations are occasionally rather inventive, and manage to accommodate recognisable traits whilst side-stepping any serious cariactures.

Parade - Brazil

"What's that, Crow?  Eat a banana!?"

Hanuman approves of your celebratory attitude

There are numerous floats and puppets.  The first to turn the corner is a giant pinwheel crow-bird, which follows the procession as it swoops down West Street.  Later, when the bands start playing at Devonshire Square, this crow will hover and do some muppet-style dancing with its wings.  A few constructions even more giant, though faintly bewildering in the mounting summer heat.

A giant marionnette of an Indian god moves through the crowd on a wheeled platform. His arms and legs move via a system of pulleys.  His head turns and his mouth opens and closes. His blue-faced shepherd produces lilting, playing music from his clarinet.

I realise with a grin that the familiar tune coming from the police brass band is the Police Academy theme tune.

Pinwheel Crow

King of Borg Represents No Particular Country

Eventually the tuneful procession makes its way to Devonshire Square, and continues with live music and festivities into the baking afternoon.  Hundreds of people have gathered in this green arena, where there are stalls and activities for the kids.  Make a wicker fish on a rod.  Paint your face.  Buy buns and eat them.

The bands play some choice tracks from the original motown and funk era.  A soulful sister belts out ‘Preacher Man’.  A guy who sings fit to burst in the style of James Brown kicks it with some Marvin Gaye.  There are some seriously good acts providing, admittedly, mainly cover tracks, but they are local and they are not, thank fuck, the Arctic Monkeys.

The sun makes us take a layer off.  The afternoon wears on, turning.

Mayor of Sheffield (and wife/consort/mistress)

Parade - Band

Dancing Man danced like a hopped up Kermit

Do you like fishsticks?  Do you like to put them in your mouth?

There is a Fruit Cow.  Note the strawberry nipples on the udder.  She is rather marvellous.  There are a man and woman on stilts, striding through the crowd.  The woman in a salsa dress smiles and chats with the youngsters ten feet south.  The man stalks after children with a long-limbed stride,  Jack Skellington and Timothy Mouse with a human face.  When he dances, he’s actually rather good.


Fruit Cow - See Her Marvellous Strawberry Udders!

I find my attention returning again and again to the Indian marionette.  The mighty Hanuman has two blue-faced operators. The lady wears white tights covered in butterflies.  At the moment he stands tall and revered in the rippling shadow of a tree, open-mouthed.  One of the operators and the eat apples.  Fruit Cow is distracted by something to the east.

Mighty Hanuman

An apple a day keeps devaloka at bay

It is easy to get distracted here, with children running around your feet near the thumping stage.  Dance acts are intermittently enthralling and embarassing.  Rap artists try too hard, as a row of children watch the skaters performing basic ollies in the half-pipe behind the stage.

Turning, Hanuman has travelled.  He is up on the paved path by the festivities, moving slowly and deliberately on his wheeled platform.  Occasionally the shepherd’s clarinet produces tunes that match the cover songs drifting up from the stage speakers.  He is fond of approaching kids and tootling off a few slow, quiet notes. Hanuman will approach the children with patient grace. His dancing and tinkling bells delight them greatly.  He floats high above the ground, sceptor balanced on one shoulder.

The blue patterned material of his legs part to reveal the intricate workings of his insides, a wire-frame god with bells in his knees.  A toddler reaches in, taps the bell, runs away giggling.  Hanuman, hollow, paper-thin, inanimate, is still an impressive eight or nine feet tall.  Another child takes a picture.

Hanuman Shepherd

Hanuman Controllers

Hanuman's platform

How many gods do you know have bells in their knees?

A girl takes a picture of Hanuman, then runs to hide behind her parents' legs

Delighting the ladies

It makes me wonder if the city has a spiritual side.  The cathedral is always empty, but there are cliques of Jews that sometimes can be seen laughing behind curls and beards on the benches around town.  There are rumours of underground extremist Muslim groups operating aruond the university.  I happen to know that there are weekly tea mornings in many of the smaller, more select churches dotted around the city.

So there is faith in this town.  But faith can be dry and more like a tradition, expected by family or community rather than adopted by those who want or need it.  Spirituality is the word.  Is there spirituality here, or are we a grey urban settlement filled with bodies rather than a crucible of desire and faith?  I would be interested to hear any thoughts and news of events around town this year.




This costumed dude had to walk around with someone holding his hands.  He threw out some hot moves to the rap guys later on, though!

Parade - Jazzman