Remembering Zhao Ziyang

Posted 03.02.09

President Obama's recent visit to Ottawa brought back memories of another visiting dignitary, China's former leader, Zhao Ziyang. When Ziyang visited Ottawa in January, 1984, Prime Minister Trudeau decided to host an elaborate Gala in his honor at the National Arts Centre.

Unfortunately, everything had to be arranged over the holidays, as the visit took place in January. Quite a cast was assembled, including Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, Maureen Forrester, the Canadian Brass, the percussion group NEXUS, and a couple of others.

I received a call in mid-December, asking if I could assemble forty-eight square dancers to perform in the finale. As the Public Relations Director of the National Square & Round Dance Society, I couldn't pass up the opportunity, but the timing was awful as the dance clubs had just taken a hiatus for the holidays.

The NAC wanted me to select a caller, give him the music (on a cassette) that the NAC Orchestra would play, and I would rehearse the dancers myself. After several frantic phone calls to key people, I soon had six squares of four couples each, with a few spares on standby, and one of Ottawa's best callers.

Knowing a bit about Chinese values, I managed to assemble an entire square of seniors, another consisting of two families, and color-coordinated each square. Because of the angle of the audience relative to the stage, and the presence of TV cameras, every woman was asked to wear two crinolines, which meant a lot of swapping and borrowing from other dancers in their clubs.

It was an amazing challenge. My caller was terrified. In addition to having to perform in front of an audience of 2400 people (most of them invited dignitaries), he was working with the NAC Orchestra and a live fiddler, rather than the records he was used to.

In addition, the show would be broadcast live on CBC and simultaneously to China.

Paul, an elevator repairman, owned only one jacket. It was grey corduroy, and I just hoped it would look like suede or velvet against the black tie and tails of the orchestra behind him.

Rehearsals went beautifully. I've never worked with a more cooperative group of people. I knew many of them, and made fast friends out of the others. Among the dancers were the Chair Couple of the 1980 National Convention (held in Ottawa), the President of the National Square and Round Dance Society, and the President of the Ontario Federation. That would prove significant as we moved into the final rehearsals.

I was told that our dancers would come onstage and perform their routine, and then be joined by the rest of the cast for the finale. A few days before the performance, Brian Macdonald, then director of Les Grands Ballets and the Director of the Gala, came into a rehearsal to watch us perform, then showed us what he wanted us to do as the rest of the cast joined us.

So far, so good. One thing about square and round dancers is that they're used to following directions from their caller. Tell them to do something and they respond, without question. And all the dancers in our group were experienced, even the 9-year-old and his 12-year-old sister, children of the caller, who were in the front square.

As soon as Brian arrived, he treated me as if I were one of his underlings, rather than the director of this troupe. He didn't even say hello, just gave me a quick glance and told me to "count down" for him, a job dance directors assign to the lowest of the low.

I was humiliated, and for a moment I was tempted to tell him that I was not just an amateur dancer, like the rest, but had actually directed a sold-out one-woman show in the NAC Studio in 1981, signing an Equity contract to do so.

Instead, I stood to one side and watched, embarrassed to be sidelined.

In his imitable flamboyant style, he demonstrated what he wanted the dancers to do, then had one of his principal dancers stand in front of our group as they practiced. It didn't take long before all 48 dancers knew what to do and when.

But when we moved onstage for the dress rehearsals, the situation changed. Paul's nervousness began to surface. He told me later that it was the hardest thing he'd even done in his life.

The first time Paul stumbled, Brian stomped onto the stage, shouting, and that was enough to unnerve Paul even more. And Brian noticed immediately that when Paul stopped, the dancers stopped.

Brian stormed over to me. In a loud voice that everyone could hear, he said, "These dancers know their routine, and they can do it whether they can hear him or not, right?"

I blanched. I knew exactly what he had in mind, although none of the dancers did. He was planning to cut off Paul's microphone.

I stood up to my full five feet two inches, caught the eye of all the elected dance officers in the room, and stated, firmly, "My dancers don't dance unless they can hear their caller."

Brian looked at the dancers, all of whom, steely-eyed, stood their ground and nodded. The Presidents of the Convention, the Society and the Federation had looked to me for direction, and the dancers followed suit.

I then turned on my heel, went over to the sound man, and asked him if he would put a double-microphone on Paul. These guys at the NAC have seen everything, and Brian Macdonald's reputation was legendary.

"Don't worry," the sound man said, reassuringly.

While this was going on, Brian Law, former conductor of the Ottawa Symphony (and someone I knew from my years as Entertainment Editor of What's On in Ottawa), turned around to talk to Paul. They were standing back to back, so Paul couldn't see the orchestra, but Law assured him that he and the entire orchestra were intent on helping him as much as they could, and that he should relax and just let them follow him.

The night of the show, everything went perfectly. Law and several members of the orchestra made a special effort to give Paul a thumbs up, Maureen Forrester left her dressing room door open and smiled at every pair of dancers as they lined up in the wings, and the rest of the cast was gracious and helpful.

Members of Les Grands Ballet were particularly pleasant. Guess they knew what it was like to get dressed-down by Brian Macdonald!

I've directed a production of Benjamin Britten's Noye's Fludde with a cast of 100 kids and an amateur orchestra (which I had to conduct) made up of grade 7 amp; 8 boys, but even that didn't compare to the Ziyang Gala.

The lovely end to this story is that I was invited upstairs to the 'hidden' reception room behind the Governor General's box, to meet Trudeau and Ziyang, along with the stars from the cast. In the line waiting to greet the two leaders, both Canadian Brass and NEXUS told me they recognized the company name on my badge, as Simon Teakettle had often requested their music on the CBC.

Trudeau was effusive in his praise of the dancers, and Zhao Ziyang grabbed my hand in both of his and held on, smiling broadly and repeating something that his translator interpreted as "Wonderful."

When I returned to the rehearsal hall where the dancers were now relaxing, I was presented with a huge bouquet of red roses.

Brian Macdonald, of course, never bothered to thank any of us.

Bobbi Graham's website has free pages and many resources for writers, publishers, and cat-lovers. Go to www.SimonTeakettle.com, and make sure you read Terzo's blog.

Copyright © 2009 Barbara Florio Graham/Log Cabin Chronicles/03.09