Artists in tune with global audiences

Updated: 2013-03-14 07:03

By Chen Jie (China Daily)

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 Artists in tune with global audiences

Top: A scene from Qingming Riverside, presented in the United States by China Arts and Entertainment Group. Provided to China Daily Below left: TAO Dance is one of China's most-successful private art troupes. Lars Ake-Stomfelt / for China Daily Below right: The China National Symphony Orchestra recently undertook a 30-date US tour. Feng Dan / for China Daily

Artists in tune with global audiences

Artists in tune with global audiences

Culture's international appeal growing ever stronger, Chen Jie reports in Beijing.

The minute her plane landed in Beijing late on Sunday, cellist Zhang Yingying turned on her cell phone to call home. She knew her 8-year-old son would stay awake to welcome his mother home after her longest absence from his young life, even though it was midnight.

Zhang's employer, the China National Symphony Orchestra, had just returned from the United States, where it had undertaken its longest tour - 53 days, with 30 dates across 16 states - since it was established in 1956. It was also the longest overseas excursion by a Chinese orchestra.

"Before joining the CNSO in 2007, I spent seven years in the US, learning the cello and then performing with an orchestra, but I was excited by the tour. I have seldom seen so many standing ovations. The audiences really appreciated our perfor-mances," said the musician.

After a concert at the Strathmore Hall, Maryland, Shelly Brown, artistic director of the Strathmore Hall Foundation, told Liao Yanru, deputy director of the CNSO's programming department, that the orchestra had improved dramatically since its 2006 performance at the same venue.

The US cultural critic, Sheila Melvin, described how an elderly woman seated next to her at a concert was unfazed by the prospect of a five-hour round trip. "I'm never going to get to China," said the woman as she stood to applaud. "So if China comes to me, well, that's just great."

In June 2010, the CNSO's concert at the Festival of the World's Symphony Orchestras in Moscow impressed an agent from Columbia Artists Management, which quickly offered to present the orchestra in the US.

Columbia initially suggested a 43-city tour and had gone as far as booking most of the halls, but the orchestra's management resisted for the sake of "quality".

"We cannot let the musicians spend five hours on a bus before playing a concert and then have them sleep at motels on the side of the highway," said director Guan Xia.

The orchestra is not alone in its overseas activity. The China Arts and Entertainment Group recently took three dance productions abroad.

Qingming Riverside at the Kennedy Center, Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts in Annapolis and the Maryland Theatre in Hagerstown; The Peony Pavilion, which toured in New Zealand and in Australia; and The Silk Road, which played in New York and Massachusetts, were commercial, as opposed to State-backed, performances and won acclaim from the press.

The productions were part of the CAEG's "Image China" program, launched in 2009 to sell high-quality Chinese contemporary shows overseas.

"In ancient times, Chinese arts and culture spread via traders along the Silk Road. Western people bought our goods and learned our culture. However, most Chinese shows that toured overseas in the past 60 years were `cultural exchange gifts' from the government. The gifts were limited and maybe not what Western people wanted. Hollywood movies, Disney animations and Broadway musicals are all (successful) commercial ventures," said Zhang Yu, president of the CAEG, founded in 1957 as the China Performing Arts Agency, the country's first performing arts outfit to engage in cultural exchange projects.

Before being assigned to the government-backed company in 1990, Zhang was an official at the Ministry of Culture, in charge of "cultural exchanges". His career path, from cultural official to arts manager, mirrors changes in the way Chinese arts are going abroad.

In the late 1990s, the CAEG began to sell productions to foreign companies, but most of the shows revolved around kung fu and acrobatics.

In 2010, 302 productions toured overseas, playing a combined 25,908 shows; 47 percent of the productions and 90 percent of the shows were exclusively acrobatic. By 2011, things had changed slightly, 126 overseas productions performed a combined total of 8,090 shows. Forty-four percent of the productions and 89 percent of the shows were acrobatic.

At the 2011 CCTV Business Leader of the Year Award, a young man from New Zealand challenged Zhang, the winner: "Do you have anything except acrobatics and Peking Opera?"

Zhang replied, "Yes. We have a variety of performing arts that are unknown to foreign audiences. You don't know, because we haven't offered them yet. That's what we are doing now.

"I admit that, because of language or cultural differences, Western people accept kung fu or acrobatics more easily, but we must educate them. Traditionally, Chinese people don't grow up with hamburgers but we still love McDonalds. Why not educate Western audiences to enjoy a variety of Chinese culture and arts?" he said.

Chinese culture is not a fixed form, added Zhang. The Taiwan dance company Cloud Gate is the best in China, despite modern dance being a Western genre, but Lin Hwai-min's choreography features calligraphy, paper, zen and other philosophies.

Since 2009, "Image China" has presented Kunqu Opera, dance, orchestras that play traditional Chinese music and others specializing in Western classical music, to audiences in the US, France, Germany, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

To better understand, and expand its share of, the Western market, the CAEG has developed a number of local partners. Zhang signed a contract with a major international arts management outfit to establish a joint company in May. In June, 2012 Zhang's team jointly founded a company with an agency in Vienna.

'Soft power'

China's rocketing economic growth has energized its "soft power", which, according to Joseph S. Nye, a professor of political science at the Harvard Kennedy School, "is the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payment".

Culture is an important part of soft power and although the CAEG dominated cultural exchange projects 15 years ago, an increasing number of private companies have joined the fray.

Founded by Wu Zezhou and his son Wu Jiatong in 1991, Wu Promotions was one of China's first private touring companies and promoters. Now a leader in the field, one of the company's best-known projects is an annual overseas tour by traditional Chinese orchestras during the Spring Festival period.

Wu Jiatong said the problems have changed during the past 20 years. Overseas tours were once strictly controlled by the government and only government-backed companies, such as the CAEG, had the "right" to take shows abroad. Logistics was a problem, too. Now the market has opened up to private companies, but the complicated procedures required to obtain approval from the Ministry of Culture still prevent many small companies from heading overseas.

However, Wu Jiatong's main concern is the lack of experienced arts managers and the phenomenon of "short notice". "The international norm is to book a show a year, or ever further, in advance. But Chinese companies often change their schedule for all sorts of reasons. For example, the local government may not approve the budget until very late in the day or a company may change its head overnight," he explained.

Alison Friedman, founder and director of the arts management company Ping Pong Productions in Beijing, echoed Wu's opinion.

She said that a few years ago it was hard to get an independent artist abroad, because without a danwei, a work unit or State-run enterprise, it was almost impossible to obtain government approval.

Now, however, the Ministry of Culture will even provide financial support. Last year, it paid the travel fees of the TAO Dance Theater, which Friedman presented at the Lincoln Center.

In 2002, Friedman won a scholarship to China and since then has worked as a "cultural bridge" between the two countries, mainly alongside small- or medium-sized Chinese groups engaged in contemporary productions.

In summer 2012, she presented Tao Dance, which has fewer than 10 members, to an audience of 1,800 at the annual Lincoln Center Festival. The group has also performed at the Sydney Opera House and London's Sadler's Wells.

"Financially, it's easier to tour small productions. Most festivals and arts centers don't know how to budget for a group of more than 80. Artistically, many young Chinese artists create great contemporary work and Western people, especially young people, want to see contemporary Chinese arts," said Friedman.

China has 2 to 3 million new productions every year and many of them want to go abroad, she said. "The big question is, who to approach? Somebody may want to play the Lincoln Center but the product may only be suitable for Las Vegas or universities, she said.

"Western countries have diverse markets and China has a wide range of performing arts. You must establish your own identity and then find the right person to approach. Finding the right partner is important, just like developing a romantic relationship," she said.

In 2014, Friedman will take Tao Dance back to the US and present Green Snake, a play written by China's leading theater director Tian Qinxin, at the Kennedy Center's Drama Festival. The Ministry of Culture will sponsor the tour.

Changing roles

The ministry is changing its role, by moving away from organizing and approving tours. Instead, it now provides financial support so companies can organize their own schedules and transport. Funds are also available for independent artists; last year, the ministry provided travel funding for the folk singer Xiao He and rock bands such as Second-Hand Roses, Yaksa, Suffocated and The Falling to perform at festivals across Europe.

In 2011, the Avignon Festival in France launched "China Kisses", a project designed to showcase contemporary drama. The ministry sponsored a large group of attendees, led by the avant-garde director Meng Jinghui.

"Peking opera or kung fu are just parts of Chinese culture. Don't forget, music is beyond the language barrier. We should also let the world listen to Chinese rock or contemporary music," said Xu Tong, an official from the Ministry of Culture's bureau of external cultural relations.

The application procedures have not changed, but they have become more efficient and therefore less time-consuming, according to Xu. Moreover, productions involving fewer than 80 people can now obtain approval from provincial governments, instead of the Ministry of Culture.

The ministry also invites international festival directors to China, taking them to shows and introducing them to Chinese artists.

More cultural organizations are getting in on the act too, by building bridges between Chinese artists and productions and the global market. One example is the annual Shanghai International Arts Festival, which holds an annual fair to sell homemade shows to arts managers from across the globe

At the Summit of Alliance of Asia-Pacific Region Orchestras, hosted by the China Symphony Development Foundation in Macao in November, Guo Shan, the foundation president, invited a long list of musicians, orchestra managers and experts to share the relatively recent boom in classical music in China.

After attending a concert by the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Chinese conductor Yu Long at New York's Avery Fisher Hall on Feb 12, Vivien Schweitzer wrote in The New York Times, " it seems that the genre (classical music) must be dying elsewhere. The graveyard is certainly not in China, which has seen a surge of interest in Western classical music in the last decade. The New York Philharmonic has paid tribute to this enthusiasm in recent years with a gala event celebrating Chinese New Year."

The concert started with the Spring Festival Overture by the Chinese composer Li Huanzhi, followed by two pieces called The Song of the Earth. The first was by Gustav Mahler, who wrote the music to accompany Chinese poems from the Tang Dynasty. In honor of Mahler, Chinese composer Ye Xiaogang created his own version of The Song of the Earth.

The jazz pianist Herbie Hancock joined the Philharmonic in a performance of Er Huang for piano and orchestra, by the Chinese composer Chen Qigang. The highlight of the concert came when the orchestra accompanied a Peking Opera singer in a rendition of The Drunken Concubine, one of the genre's most popular arias.

"It is my way of spreading Chinese culture abroad," said Yu.

Asked how a South Korean musical, performed in Beijing's Wangjing area - home to a large expat Korean population - to a full house of Koreans could be described as spreading Korean culture in China, Yu replied, "We must promote Chinese culture within mainstream Western society. Let Western musicians pay tribute to Chinese music and let Western audiences appreciate our culture."

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(China Daily 03/14/2013 page7)