As I was on the TurboJet ferry from Hong Kong, before I had even reached the Macau Maritime Ferry Terminal, I received four unsolicited text messages. The first read: "Macau Govt Tourist Office welcomes you! Choose licensed hotels and inns for your visit, don't stay at illegal accommodation." A tourism hotline number followed. The rest were from casinos, offering me opportunities to "Spin for a Million!" (City of Dreams) or "SPIN 2 WIN" (Grand Lisboa). If the texts indicated the blithe grip of the gambling industry on Macanese culture, it is also worth noting that the government got in first. I was traveling to see two super-spectacular shows in a location where a certain sort of theatre—international, intermedial, and (up to a point) intercultural—is a bargaining chip in an ongoing commercial and cultural cleanup operation. (You are free to understand "cleanup" in both senses of the term.)
Cirque du Soleil's Zaia premiered on 28 August 2008, joining a stable of shows permanently housed in casinos (Cirque has seven such productions in Las Vegas). Along with Zed in Tokyo, Zaia is one of the company's two resident productions outside of North America and is a vehicle for its ongoing corporate engagement with China. Relatively hot on its heels, The House of Dancing Water is the brainchild of Franco Dragone, a former Cirque du Soleil director whose resume includes a number of Vegas mega-hits. The show opened on 17 September 2010 and comfortably wears a billing as "the world's largest water-based extravaganza." Both productions belong to that familiar genre of populist spectaculars that set high-grade circus skills amid high-end production values. They must also be seen as a function of their setting in casino developments on the Cotai Strip—an extensive land-reclamation project in the Pearl River Delta—where both have a strategic place in the consolidation of Macau's civic and geo-political identity.
A former Portuguese colony, Macau became a Special Administrative Region of China in 1999, two years after its neighbor Hong Kong. Long positioned as a meeting point between East and West, the region is the only area in China where gambling is legal, and it is now home to the most profitable concentration of casinos in the world. In February 2002, seeking to revitalize and re-legitimize Macau's lucrative gambling industry, the government awarded franchises to three operators, including two Las Vegas-based conglomerates. Macau now turns over four times the gaming revenue of Las Vegas, the result of 25 million trips made to the region, mostly by residents of mainland China. The Macanese government required investors to commit to "diversification": namely, the development of a wider range of leisure offerings and entertainment experiences. In this environment, theatre must be accessible, chic, and consumable, which is where Cirque du Soleil and Dragone come in.
The resulting productions, commissioned by the casino corporations to run for years, are located in bespoke venues integrated within larger leisure developments. An 1,800-seat theatre was built for Zaia, its round proscenium apparently modeled on Indian and Mayan architecture. The venue is located within Macau's lavish version of The Venetian: a hotel, mall, and casino complex modeled not so much on the Italian city as on The Venetian in Las Vegas, except that the Macanese iteration is three times the size of its US counterpart. Directly across the road is the City of Dreams complex, described in its marketing material as an "integrated entertainment resort" that includes three hotels and an apartment complex with 2,200 rooms, a casino with 400 gaming tables, and a shopping mall featuring leading Western designer brands. The House of Dancing Water was conceived, according to a press release, as "the iconic entertainment centrepiece of City of Dreams' leisure . . . offering." Its dependence on corporate subvention was exemplified by its media launch in 2010, at...