Passing It On: Thank you Elizabeth Kauffman

A brief history of cultural word of mouth in China

by Cathy Barbash

Way back around 2000, during one of my fact-finding trips to Beijing, I asked then Cultural Affairs Officer Elizabeth Kauffman what was new and interesting in town. She said she’d heard of a relatively new independent modern dance troupe, and gave me some leads on how to find them.

I tracked the troupe down in a rehearsal space in the Middle School of the Beijing Opera Academy in the Fengtai section of Beijing (think Shabby Outer Boroughs), where a sypathetic colleague was allowing them to use space. The only performance they were giving during my visit was during the Coca Cola MTV China Awards, but I could tell they were terrific. In those days, and still somewhat today, they and other independent performing arts groups would do “industrials” to earn their payrolls.

I talked them up, eventually found a way to get an agent over to see them. She signed them, gave them their American debut tour, and suddenly, as the cultural industry in China finally felt the benefits of Reform and Opening Up, even though they were independent, they became the darlings of the Ministry, often touring with Chinese officials.

Jump to last December, when David Fraher and I took a delegation of the Major University Presenters to China to look for work to tour through their circuit. As we co-curated the offerings (a first, since we were guests of the Ministry of Culture), the troupe was of course included. The Bureau of American and Oceanian Affairs at the Ministry is now young, energetic and much more savvy. Guess which dance company they took visiting Lincoln Center President Reynold Levy to see during his recent visit?

P.S. Levy gave an elegant, sensitive, humble, respectful, passionate and engaging speech at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing (aka The Egg) last Friday. Just had lunch with my colleagues at the Shanghai Grand Theatre and they were similarly impressed with him earlier in his visit. He is the perfect cultural ambassador.

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