Posts Tagged ‘cathy barbash’

“The Sharks are gonna have their way, tonight.”

Sunday, August 21st, 2011

by Cathy Barbash

“I Sing Beijing,” the Hanyu Academy of Vocal Arts, wrapped up its inaugural program on August 18 with a gala concert at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing. ( A colleague of mine in attendance reported:

“WELL DONE Hanban, Tian Haojiang, and Martha Liao! This concert was wonderful. Lots of old “red” lyric songs from 50s films and Cultural Revolution Model Operas, as well as some Rossini, Puccini, and even Bernstein’s “Tonight.” The audience cheered throughout, though on occasion the applause was a bit too quick and had a bit of “Waaaaah! Look at the talking monkey!” edge to it. The young singers had clearly mastered the art of singing in Chinese, right down to the gestures borrowed from Chinese opera.”

I wonder what market there will be for these hard-won new skills. I’ll look for these newly-minted singers of Chinese in upcoming National Day and Chinese Spring Festival Embassy and Consular celebrations. One hopes that the singers will also be supplied with some good Chinese art song literature to be included in their future recitals. Finding good appropriate repertoire will be key, and for a start, I highly recommend tenors look first at the hauntingly beautiful work with piano, Huang Ruo’s “Fisherman’s Sonnet.” Check back in a few days, I’m sourcing a recent Beijing performance to include with this post. For now enjoy the Qun poetry:

Fisherman’s Sonnet Huang Ruo
(b. 1976)

An old fisherman, with a fishing rod, leans against a cliff by the side of the bay.

Boats come to and fro without a care.
Sandgulls dot the shore, clear waves in the distance.
At Di harbor, the wind whistles, the day turns cold.
I sing a loud song, and the waning sun sets.
In a single moment, the waves shake the golden shadows,
I suddenly lift my head, and the moon rises on east mountain.

And meanwhile, back in Beijing, while “I Sing Beijing” international singers engaged in a “model unit”-worthy cultural exchange performance, up near the Birds Nest Stadium, Life was imitating Art imitating Life, with the Georgetown Hoyas and People’s Liberation Army Bayi Rockets basketball teams rumbling, alas, complete with racial epithets.

Red Detachment Redux and the Cowboy Spirit

Friday, August 5th, 2011

by Cathy Barbash

For those of you who did not get enough of the Red Detachment of Women during this winter’s run of Nixon in China at the Met, the National Ballet of China will be performing excerpts of the ballet (possibly the same excerpt reinterpreted and interpolated into the opera by Mark Morris) in its mixed program as part of the Kennedy Center’s latest China festival, “CHINA: The Art of a Nation.” (The Ministry of Culture considered their 2005 Festival of China so successful, they wanted another.) Alas, the remainder of the program features the equally unavoidable Yellow River Concerto and Swan Lake excerpts. After visual arts, China’s dance companies lead the way in innovation and international marketability of their arts. Why such conservative repertoire? Why not show the latest the company has to offer?

Interesting related updates: the Inner Mongolian Chorus also performed as part of the Kennedy Center’s 2005 Festival of China. Since then however, consistent with the continuing Reform and Opening Up of cultural industries, a small ensemble originating from this chorus has gone off on their own, with great success so far. An Da Union has toured twice through our heartland through Arts Midwest’s Worldfest program (as has Beauty and Melody). They play the Edinburgh Festival later this month, and are the subject of an upcoming documentary. Mostly younger performers, they have had the courage, savvy and entrepreneurial spirit to break away from the old fashioned “large official group” mentality that limits much international touring of large official Chinese ensembles to large-scale sit-down festivals.

Wishful Thinking

Friday, July 29th, 2011

by Cathy Barbash

Hear ye hear ye, international arts consultants looking to profit by advising on the development of cultural industry infrastructure, in particular the development of theater districts, be advised that China’s own home-grown consultants have entered the fray. I had the opportunity recently to see one of their observations:

“I was in (second tier Chinese city) last week for a consultant project on a theatre district which the municipal government wants to build. As for setting up ongoing shows there, it seems the market is not big enough yet. The people would rather spend money in eating than go to the theatre. The city doesn’t have enough entertainment consumption demands. So, to build a feasible business model to run the theatres and to keep the district alive, we think we need financial, merchandise, convention, and hotel businesses to support the theatres. China has not had a theatre district like Broadway. The theatres in Beijing and Shanghai are both scattered. To build a theatre district in this city ….is quite risky. Nonetheless, the municipal government and the investors want to make this theatre district. It’s a great location, and a big planning area. Ah ha, it is a big idea, a big ambition.”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

In other US-China arts-related news, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts will be announcing shortly the final line-up for its CHINA: The Art of a Nation Festival, scheduled for late September. Evidently, the PRC Ministry of Culture was so thrilled by the success of the JFK’s 2005 Festival of China (brilliantly curated by Alicia Adams), they wanted a sequel.

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.

Cathy Barbash on China

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

I first went to China 19 years ago, as orchestra manager of the Philadelphia Orchestra. It was the 20th anniversary of the orchestra’s historic first, post ping-pong diplomacy tour, and just four years after the demonstrations in Tian’anmen Square. Whether for business or cultural purposes, foreigners still came only when invited, and itineraries were closely controlled. It was my background as a comparative government major that enabled me to see that the “Reform and Opening Up” launched by Deng Xiaoping was finally reaching the cultural sector.

When the Philadelphia Orchestra first visited China in 1973, culture was still purely a tool of the state. Once it arrived in Beijing, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government covered all expenses. By 1993, the PRC’s priorities were shifting: the Ministry of Culture was required to find sponsors to help alleviate the costs of presenting the orchestra in Beijing and Shanghai. Without informing us, the Ministry’s presenter had thus secured five of its own sponsors, who were to receive primary recognition at all events.

By myself in Beijing, with no assistance from the U.S. Embassy but good advice from journalist friends there, I had to negotiate with the Ministry of Culture for the restitution of the orchestra sponsor’s rights and visibility. The argument that Coca-Cola had paid ten times more to the orchestra than the presenter’s sponsor had to the Ministry made no headway. However, once I explained to them through my interpreter that, though the Philadelphia Orchestra would return to Beijing at most once every four years, Coca-Cola was a “permanent resident” there, and thus if Coke was happy with the benefits it received on this tour, the Ministry itself could approach Coke to sponsor its own projects every year, the light was blinding. It was my “eureka” moment too. It was clear that the evolution of the cultural sector had begun, that I had a flair for negotiation and interest in the field, and thus I dove into these roiling waters.  

People are often non-comprehending, confused and a bit uncomfortable with an independent sole practitioner cultural consultant. I find the benefits still outweigh the challenges. To work successfully with China, a combination of knowledge of “the situation” and a well-developed personal network, “guanxi,” are paramount. My tenure with the Philadelphia Orchestra provided a head-start. The independence has allowed me to stay in contact with colleagues in both countries over many years, enabling me to track simultaneously their professional development with the long-term development of cultural industries and relevant government agencies.

*”Black Cat White Cat” will share my experiences and observations on this “long march,” including the development of China’s domestic and international cultural industries, the singularities of its dual track independent and official cultural sectors, performing arts education of the Chinese, in and out of China, and the emergence of China’s young multinational creative class.   


**In 1961 in Guangzhou, Deng Xiaoping uttered what is perhaps his most famous quotation: “I don’t care if it’s a white cat or a black cat. It’s a good cat so long as it catches mice.” This was interpreted to mean that being productive in life is more important than whether one follows a communist or capitalist ideology.