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Can the performing arts revive interest in Beijing's Bird's Nest stadium?

May 21, 2009 |  5:36 pm

Stadium

For several months in 2008, it was the trademark symbol of China's emergence on the world stage. You couldn't turn on the television without being bombarded with fawning aerial shots of its lattice steelworks exterior.

How quickly fortunes turn. Since the Summer Games ended in August, Beijing's Bird's Nest stadium has suffered a fate that is all too common among former Olympic venues around the world: neglect. A lack of bookings means the stadium (designed by Herzog & de Meuron) remains empty most of the time. Last month, the stadium lowered ticket prices to lure more tourists. Business is so meager that there are even plans to turn parts of the structure into a shopping center.

So today's news that Chinese auteur Zhang Yimou will restage his famous production of Puccini's "Turandot" at the stadium in October comes as a noteworthy development. Zhang's mega-production, which was originally staged at the Forbidden City in 1998, will include new and improved special effects in addition to the cast-of-thousands pageantry that marked its first outing.

In a larger sense, the revival of "Turandot" (which is meant to celebrate the Communist Party's 60th anniversary in power) asks an important question: Can the performing arts revive interest in the stadium?

It's a tricky proposition. The sheer size of the venue (90,000+ seats) renders it impractical for most art events. (And most sporting events too.)  Could you imagine straining your ears to hear "Hamlet" from the nosebleed seats? Or squinting to make out the choreography of a dance troupe?

Still, the size of the stadium could work to its advantage. The owner -- a company called the Citic Group -- has stated its intention to bring in only prestige events. It's just a question of programming the right material.

Bigger is not only better; it's a requirement. So how about an original show by Cirque du Soleil? Beijing is teaming year round with Western tourists who would be the natural audience for such a spectacle. The outsized and hyper-colorful aesthetic that is Cirque's trademark seems like a natural fit for such an expansive space. (The group is already scheduled to appear at Expo 2010 in Shanghai.)

Another possibility: Bring in more opera stars. Classical music is big among China's middle class, and its popularity is only growing. Promoters could import major talents, like Plácido Domingo, for one-off concerts and safely expect a healthy turnout. Acoustics are non-existent, of course. But that's what sound systems are for.

And why limit yourself to the performing arts? Beijing's thriving visual arts community could certainly use the space for exhibitions and for showing large-scale work. In fact, one of the stadium's designers was Ai Weiwei, the outspoken multi-media artist who specializes in grandiose, larger-than-life creations. To see an exhibition of his work at the stadium he helped to create would be a doubly remarkable event.

It will be years yet before the Bird's Nest stadium finds its own identity. ("It remains the most daring stadium built anywhere in the last decade," wrote Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne.) The decision to bring in the arts is a galvanizing choice that can hopefully spur more groups to take advantage of this extraordinary space.

-- David Ng

Photo: Beijing's National Stadium, better known as the Bird's Nest. Credit: Frederic J. Brown / AFP/Getty Images.

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