Posts Tagged ‘China’

Summer Doldrums

Friday, July 15th, 2011

by Cathy Barbash

As mid-summer approaches, US-China cultural exchange continues its lopsided dance. No American performers participate in festivals in Xinjiang and Guangdong. Meanwhile, in Beijing, a consortium of U.S. conservatories attempts to woo Chinese students with their own show-and-tell festival.

Way out in Urumqi, Xinjiang Province, the second annual China Xinjiang International Folk Dance Festival will present 14 local, national and international troupes in nearly 80 performances from July 20 through August 5. In keeping with current national priorities, this year’s festival is themed “Harmonious China, Colorful World”. As the press conference stated in the inimitable Chinese fashion, “The Dance Festival will showcase the development of the current boom in Xinjiang, civilized and harmonious new image, let the World know Xinjiang.”

Programming will include artists from Hong Kong, Russia, North and South Korea, India, Algeria, Russia, Pakistan, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Spain. Domestic groups include the Central Ballet of China, the Hunan Provincial Song & Dance Company, and the People’s Liberation Army Song & Dance Company. ( Unfortunately no Americans. Xinjiang’s local troupes will showcase their World Intangible Cultural Heritage forms of maqam and manasi, but my suspicion is that most folk dances will have been sanitized and fetishized. The Festival will also market to a tech-savvy audience with an online dance audition. Contestants will compete for awards for Best Creativity, Best Stage Performance, People’s Choice, Best Group and Most Promising etc, with votes cast via internet, voice, and SMS.

Back east, the 8th Guangdong Modern Dance Festival (produced by City Contemporary Dance Company’s Willy Tsao) will offer one more season from July 24-29 before taking a sabbatical year to find a more sustainable operating model. Since 2004, the festival has focused on the development of Chinese dance-makers, premiering almost 300 original works, and featuring artists from over 20 provinces and regions in China. The festival has been unusual in that it operates on box office income and donation from the community without government subsidy.

While offering several international troupes (but alas, again nothing from the U.S.), this last festival before the hiatus will focus inward, reviewing China’s dance development over the past decade, and gathering from all over China (including Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan) about 80 dance groups featuring over 300 Chinese artists in its “Youth Dance Marathon (YDM)”, “Springboard” and “Mainstage” performances. Together with more than a dozen visiting companies from overseas, the Festival will present over 100 creations for an audience that will include over 30 international festival directors, curators and guests. For general program information, see

Meanwhile, the U.S. still searches for Chinese “customers.” This summer’s notable American performances may not be direct public diplomacy exchanges, but represent a savvy marketing effort for American-style music education. A consortium of American music conservatories will showcase themselves in the “2011 First U.S. Music Schools Piano and Violin Music Festival,” co-hosted by Oberlin Conservatory and the Beijing Concert Hall at the Beijing Concert Hall from August 18-22.  Other schools participating include Eastman, Manhattan School, Ithaca, Peabody, and Boston University. No Oberlin staff were available to give me more information over the phone, but more details for Chinese speakers are available at and I will be curious about the festival’s effectiveness as a recruiting device: This same consortium of schools, plus N.Y.U., will hold auditions in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou this coming October. A bigger question: with orchestra jobs and general arts funding shrinking in the U.S., will Chinese graduates of American conservatories stay or return home?

Shenzhen Odyssey: A stroll through the 7th International Conference for the Promotion of Chinese Cultural Products

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

 by Cathy Barbash

Attendance at a Chinese performing arts trade fair-seminar hybrid is always a surreal affair, equal parts exhilaration, exasperation, unintentional hilarity and unexpected vignettes of our shared humanity. Further to my last post, here are highlights of my recent visit to the 7th International Conference for the Promotion of Chinese Cultural Products in Shenzhen.

International delegations pose in front of the gargantuan Shenzhen exhibition center. Inflatable arches and huge tethered hot-air balloons inscribed with exhortatory messages are all the rage.  The fair covered cultural products in the broadest sense. The more generic provincial exhibits, the furniture, jewelry, crafts and video/new media were housed in this building: the performing arts were exiled to the lobby of the Shenzhen Poly Theatre and an adjacent building.

After the official opening, the inevitable TV commentators discuss the importance of the fair. Though a few foreign officials from Guangzhou consular offices attended, I did not see any foreign press.

Window dressing, surplus labor: seen everywhere at meetings, restaurants, etc. The young Chinese have labeled them “vases”: i.e. they look pretty but don’t do anything.

Looking down onto the exhibition hall floor.

A woman of the Miao minority. China’s minority cultural products were widely showcased. Some displays were tasteful, others felt much more fetishized.

Dance and music showcases sprouted on pocket-sized stages throughout the exhibit hall, often in front of video backdrops of relevant provincial scenery or yet other performances. Domestic media swarmed the most colorful and emotive performances, as well as the important officials as they inspected the exhibits. An ear-splitting cacophony. Unfortunately no separate showcases.

Actors “bronzed” for a revolutionary tableau-vivant. No irony here.

Making the old new. Chinese designers have excelled at adapting the traditional into the arresting modern. Though we rarely see the best of this onstage, occasionally a gifted designer such as Tim Yip will take a break from the movies for a stage production.

Old plus new: The Chinese long ago embraced Western pop and rock. Note the background wallpaper of traditional Chinese drums, and the Thomas the Tank Engine T-shirt on the toddler.

Next generation photo-journalist captures aspiring Chinese hipsters. This could be happening in Brooklyn…..

The mission of the “Hong Kong Newly Chinese Music Association” was not clear, and alas, like many of the booths, this one was unattended, with no English-language materials.

Back at the hotel, recent conservatory graduates provide an afternoon serenade. Such live music is common at the best Chinese hotels. I’d love to see more that in the U.S.

As seen in a bookstore window in a Soho-like Shenzhen neighborhood, “Chutzpah!” is a bilingual cultural journal.

Invited foreign guests=jam-packed itineraries+endless banquets=exhaustion

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Thursday, November 4th, 2010

by Cathy Barbash

Within the last six months, a Ministry of Culture subsidiary actually hired a local foreign media expert to advise them on the use of social and other internet media tools to improve its cultural diplomacy (aka soft power) initiatives. Foreign expert told them to use Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and the like.

Ministry of Culture tossed the recommendation.

Within a day of my learning the above, a senior Chinese corporate director asked my advice on VPNs, the software devices that let the user bypass the Great Firewall of China.

Return of the King?

Thursday, November 4th, 2010

by Cathy Barbash

Last weekend in Xi’an, my local cultural official friend, discreetly told us that artists in Shaanxi Province are quietly telling each other that “spring is coming.” Why their optimism? Shaanxi native Xi Jingping will become the next president of China. “The Tang Emperor is returning,” they say.

They will need all the help they can get–the local revival/repatriation of Ping Chong’s Cathay: Three Tales of China, was, albeit a huge artistic success, fraught with nightmarish production problems. This was a sobering reminder of how the interior still lags behind the coast, and how government affiliated culture companies lag behind private entrepreneurial companies in the same city.

Passing It On: Thank you Elizabeth Kauffman

Friday, October 29th, 2010

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.