WHEN I FIRST VISITED CHINA to perform in the Beijing Dance Festival in 2012, I arrived assuming that modern dance in China was a relatively new, underdeveloped phenomenon. I had no idea that modern dance had been developing in China for nearly 40 years, nor that the dance scene would be brimming with vitality and innovation.
10 minutes into watching the Guangdong Modern Dance Company perform on the festival main stage and my mind changed completely. Beyond the technical caliber of the dancers, I was especially struck by how innovative the movement language was, and how the dancers fluid execution of movement created a new style that somehow felt uniquely Chinese. I was immediately hooked and eager to learn more, both about the movement style and about the full breadth of work being created in mainland China.
Now almost three years after my initial trip to China, I am reveling in a three-month cultural exchange in Guangzhou, Taiyuan, and Beijing that is sponsored and facilitated by San Francisco-based ZiRu Dance. This project, that ZiRu calls their “Individual Cultural Exchange” program, has been set up to foster opportunities for dancers to teach, train and attend festivals abroad.
Living in China has given me a window into the degree of misconceptions and lack of information on both sides. From my many subsequent conversations with American dance colleagues, I don’t think I was alone in my initial misconceptions about the state of modern dance in China. The high caliber of modern Chinese dance doesn’t correspond with its limited global reputation and visibility. Most people, even Chinese people, are surprised when I speak about how modern dance is developing in the world’s most populous country.
Similarly, Chinese dancers are relatively unfamiliar with American modern dance. They have seen the television show So You Think You Can Dance, have watched a few popular Broadway musicals that have traveled to China, and have studied modern dance pioneers like Martha Graham, but unless they have been abroad, they are unfamiliar with current trends and all but the most famous companies. Without a real context for American dance, Chinese people I speak with often just assume that modern dance in the US is superior to modern dance in China. I am frequently asked the question, “Why would an American come to China to study modern dance?”
In order to better understand the unique challenges for cultural exchange between the US and China, I spoke with two pioneers in the field of Chinese modern dance and international exchange who graciously offered their perspectives. Willy Tsao is the Artistic Director of LDTX (Beijing), Guangdong Modern Dance Company (Guangzhou), and City Contemporary Dance Company (Hong Kong), and has played a huge role in the development of modern dance in China. Alison Friedman is the Director and Founder of Ping Pong Productions, a producing and consulting organization based in Beijing that presents Chinese artists abroad and brings distinguished international performing artists to China.
There are many factors to explain the big gaps in understanding, beginning with sheer distance and language barriers. Chinese political and diplomatic history has weathered drastic shifts alongside the development of modern dance, and until the Chinese adopted the “Open Door Policy” in 1978, the two countries had no economic, political or cultural contact for nearly 30 years. In addition, China has restrictions on Internet use, limiting one of the greatest cultural exchange facilitators of our time.
Media-fueled stereotyping adds to the problem on both sides. Americans hear about authoritarian government control, air pollution, and hyper-speed economic growth. Chinese people hear about wealth (and wealth inequity), gun violence, and political antics over healthcare spending and the federal budget. Of course the reality is much more complex than these oversimplifications. There is a desperate need for greater exchange and understanding, and modern dance offers a potent medium, because it communicates directly through movement, eliminating the need for translation.
Friedman noted that the cultural disconnect stems directly from financial constraints on both sides, which limit each country’s artists from performing in the other country. She explained, “The financial bottom-line is the number one obstacle to cultural exchange, but the US perception is that it is political.” Contrary to the prevailing international perception, Chinese artists are not overly hindered by government censorship. Friedman continued, “The American perception of censorship in China is that it is broad and all-pervasive. However, the reality is that the government has far greater priorities— say, North Korea, nuclear threats, a massive aging population, crippling environmental problems—to have much time left to regulate modern dance. The unspoken attitude seems to be ‘If you don’t bother us, we won’t bother you.’”
Friedman added that this is especially true for live performances, for which censorship policies “are significantly less strict than those for film and television. One theory why is that live performances reach comparatively smaller audiences. You can frequently get permits for live performances that wouldn’t necessarily be approved in a film or television project.”
Friedman is quick to explain how changes in the financial climate for dance in China, combined with existing funding structures in the US critically limit exchange opportunities. As the Chinese economy undergoes widespread privatization, arts organizations are starting to face similar funding challenges to their American counterparts. Friedman explains, “China’s 11th 5-year plan (instituted in 2006) began to systematically decrease government funding for venues and companies, but the private market (foundations, individual donors and corporate sponsors) has not been developed in a way that can make up the difference. The result is that Chinese presenters and festivals are, like their American counterparts, increasingly dependent on ticket sales to generate profits.”
Friedman has found that these financial constraints make presenters risk-averse in both countries. She commented, “The majority of arts venues and festivals seek productions that will appeal to their existing audiences. They hesitate to take financial risks on unknown artists or art forms” (Friedman). Finding innovative, undiscovered artists from abroad and presenting them in a way that makes them appealing to a new market is difficult, and presenters often don’t know how to make events achieve profitability. “On both sides, the venue presenters and festival curators lack vision, bravery and education to facilitate greater opportunities for exchange.”
Friedman explains that as a result of these challenges, “venues and festivals rely heavily on international governments to subsidize the performance tours of international artists in China. Due to China’s increasing importance on the world stage, many foreign Ministries of Culture are more than happy to underwrite their country’s dance, theatre, and orchestra tours in China” (Friedman). These subsidies help cover the increased costs and allow presenters to take bigger risks.
However, Friedman continues, “The exception to this rule is America, which does not have a Ministry of Culture, and therefore sends far fewer performing arts groups to China than its European and Asian counterparts” (Friedman). Support is also limited on the Chinese side because the Chinese Ministry of Culture has very specific political interests at stake in who they support.
Thus, it is much easier for both the US and China to present artists from other countries. As a result, there are many missed opportunities for Chinese-American performance exchange. Currently, artists on both sides must do significant independent fundraising to showcase their work across the Pacific.
Internet restrictions also affect artists’ visibility and financial opportunities. While the government doesn’t actively block information and media directly related to modern dance, censorship keeps China isolated in a world that is increasingly connected by the proliferation of social media. Chinese do not have access to major US websites, and as a result China has developed its own social media culture. While Americans use Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and Google, Chinese use WeChat, YouKu, Weibo, Baidu and many more. The crossover between these sites is minimal. Although people outside of China are able to access Chinese apps and websites, most aren’t familiar with these platforms and lack the language skills to navigate them effectively. Similarly, Chinese users and companies cannot upload or share their work on American sites, so it can be hard for American producers to view the work of prominent companies and artists.
While this might suggest a bleak future for Chinese dance on the international scene, Friedman was quick to point out that in spite of these challenges, the audience demand is high. “The bottleneck for increased exchange is not due to a lack of either audiences or artists. Many people in the US and Europe are hungry to know more about China and its contemporary art.” Likewise she said, “There is not a lack of audience in China. Chinese audiences are hungry and omnivorous.” Chinese audiences are fascinated by foreign contemporary art and have increasing affluence to attend events. The challenge in both countries is in creating new models for exchange to meet the growing demand.
For Tsao, the problem extends beyond practical challenges to visibility and funding. Rather, it is a result of more basic global assumptions that modern dance is fundamentally a Western phenomenon. “Many people consider modern dance to be a western language. Even some Chinese people consider eastern and Asian countries to be backwards or traditional. When you think of ‘modern,’ you think of ‘western.’ Unless they come to China to see what is actually happening here, most people just assume that Chinese people cannot possibly be doing anything modern or contemporary, because they are supposed to be more traditional.”
Tsao recounted the fact that Western audiences, press and presenters all ask him the same questions that the Chinese government asks him: “How is modern dance relevant to Chinese culture?” To him, this belays an underlying supposition that “if you are doing something modern, it means that you are betraying your culture and tradition and copying the western world.”
Friedman echoed this frustration and noted that a big challenge for presenting Chinese artists abroad is working with marketing departments and press who have no knowledge of contemporary Chinese art. “Marketing language frequently utilizes the same dated tropes of “East meets West”, and can border on offensive stereotypes about ‘exotic Oriental culture.’” Similarly, she noted how western critics are quick to cite the influence of T’ai Chi or the authoritarian government in artists’ work, without understanding the artists’ actual backgrounds or artistic intentions. These framings of contemporary Chinese dance strengthen the idea that Chinese modern dance is a rehashing of tradition and ancient culture instead of being truly ‘modern.’
Tsao also pointed out that the challenges to cross cultural exchange in dance are deeply connected with the larger social and political circumstances that limit mutual understanding. An opportunity for greater understanding is being under-utilized. As Friedman put it, “Through the performing arts, you can show the richness, diversity, and complexity of a culture.”
For Tsao, modern dance offers a unique route to mutual understanding because it offers an authentic expression of the individual, and therefore a true representation of the culture. He affirmed, “If you are living, breathing, eating and dying in China, you cannot possibly create something Western. Whatever you create is a reflection of your surroundings and culture.”
Tsao’s ideas about the intersection of culture and individuality through modern dance resonate strongly with me. They reinforce the idea that through dance we bring to life our understandings about life, which we can’t bring to words: our unspoken feelings, our ways of thinking, our dreams and ways of being. It’s hard to pin any of these things down, to articulate and pinpoint any one aspect as being our ‘culture,’ but it is an intrinsic part of the way we move.
Ideally, cultural exchange allows us to understand not just our differences, but also our similarities, not just our ancient history, but also our contemporary life. It gives dancers and choreographers ways to widen their artistic horizons and also to freshly examine their assumptions about the meaning of culture and contemporary arts. For audiences, the interpretative, abstract nature of modern dance invites people to experience other perspectives and find common ground.
Friedman, Alison M. “Is Capitalism Harming the Arts in China?” International Arts Manager 23 Dec. 2014. Web. 22 Feb. 2015. http://www.internationalartsmanager.com/2014/12/capitalism-harming-arts-china/