A passionate lover for the arts, exchanges

Updated: 2013-02-22 12:05

By Liu Yuhan in New York (China Daily)

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A passionate lover for the arts, exchanges

Alison Friedman and her Ping Pong Productions want to assist more small and medium performing groups in China to be known internationally by helping them perform globally. Provided to China Daily

Since 2009, the Beijing-based art-management company Ping Pong Productions has connected Chinese and US performing artists through tours, collaborations and teaching residencies. Founder and director Alison Friedman has been instrumental in introducing international audiences to young Chinese artists, especially those from small and medium-sized companies.

The company's name is a nod to "Ping Pong Diplomacy," the term coined after a 1971 trip to China, in which a group of American ping pong players and journalists helped smooth then-strained diplomatic relations between the two countries.

"Ping pong means lai hui (back and forth), and we hope to see more cultural exchanges between the two countries, just like in ping pong," Friedman said at a recent seminar on performing arts at the Chinese Consulate in New York.. "And it's pronounced the same in both languages."

In the summer of 2012, Ping Pong Productions brought TAO Dance Theatre, a group of fewer than 10 dancers, to an audience of 1,800 at New York's annual Lincoln Center Festival. TAO also performed at the world-famous Sydney Opera House and Sadler's Wells Theatre in London, among other world-renowned dance theaters.

Friedman was previously the general manager for Oscar-and Grammy-winning composer Tan Dun's company Parnassus Productions in New York, and a host on China Radio International. She served as international director of The Beijing Modern Dance Company and produced international performance festivals, including the Sino-US dance festival Booking Dance Beijing during the 2008 Olympic Games.

Friedman's long-time dedication has impressed industry insiders.

"She is a visionary, and one of the very few individuals in the field who recognized the potential of Chinese performing arts and cultural exchanges," said Robert Nederlander Jr, a Broadway impresario and a third-generation member of the Nederlander family that owns about one-third of Broadway's musical theaters. Nederlander Jr opened the first foreign entity in China's performing arts industry in 2005 and helped produce the Chinese show Soul of Shaolin on Broadway in 2007.

Friedman grew up playing piano and dancing. She majored in comparative literature at Brown University, where her love for the Chinese language and Chinese culture deepened. She dreamed of combining arts and China for her career path. With Ping Pong Productions, she has made her dream blossom on arts stages in China and the US.

Navigating the rapidly evolving Chinese performing arts world has been exciting, she said.

"For a long time, most Chinese dancing companies were supported and run by the government, but now as China's entire infrastructure is changing, young artists are creating new works and experimenting with new styles," she said. "It's not only the content of the art that's changing, it's also the context and the environment in which they are doing it.

Ping Pong Productions is dedicated to helping small and medium-sized Chinese organizations with fewer resources to go abroad.

"We have two main focuses: going out and bringing in," she said.

In 2012, Friedman served as the project manager to liaise between the Beijing Olympic Development Association and the London Olympic Committee on the large-scale community dance project Big Dance Beijing, as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad. She also coordinated with the US embassy in Beijing and the US consulate in Guangzhou to arrange extensive dance workshop outreach in communities throughout China.

The year before, Ping Pong Productions participated in the "Booey Lehoo" Student Exchange Organization 2011 Concert & Arts week, a celebration of cultural exchange and collaboration between China and the US. The program was planned in support of the US State Department's "100,000 Strong Initiative", a student exchange program announced by US President Barack Obama during his visit to China in November 2009 and launched in Beijing the following May by former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.

The restructuring of China's cultural sector began in 2006 with the purpose of boosting the sector and turning its government-funded cultural institutions into enterprises. China generates 2 million to 3 million performing arts products every year, among the most in the world. But many cultural groups, particularly small and medium-sized organizations, continue to struggle both financially and in adapting to modern management, Friedman said.

It's not surprising that most young Chinese artists face financial difficulties, but Friedman remains positive for their future in and outside China and is determined to help them, she said.

"We talk a lot about difficulties artists face, but I think in fact that's shared all over the world," she said. "There's never enough money, nor enough recognition."

Friedman has strong faith in the ability of Chinese artists to "find a way to make their art and prevail," she said.

"Art's ecology is very similar to a natural ecology, or a forest. If you are only going to have big trees, the forest is going to die. You need big trees, small trees, bushes, animals, grass, and air. You need a diverse and healthy ecology to let the forest stay healthy. The value of art can't only be measured by its market value; it's still valuable for the identity of the culture."

Her enthusiasm in developing performing arts between the two countries goes beyond her love for the arts, she said.

In her view, very often, most information people obtain seems one-faceted, while art shows are multi-faceted and show the diversity of society and culture.

"The more you see another culture as simple and flat, the easier it is to see disrespect. The more we see cultures and people as diverse, multi-faceted complex organisms, the more people can respect and see themselves in the other person," she said.

"And as the world gets more globalized, and China and the US work together, the role of art will only become more vital."

Friedman's team will continue working toward their goals. They are currently preparing for TAO Dance's 2014 tour across the US.

"I'll be thrilled to continue to see a better understanding between our people through performing arts," she said.