Editor’s note: This piece was originally published in the printed Dance/USA Journal, spring 2010 and has been updated to reflect ongoing developments in dance touring and presenting in China. You can find part 1 here in From the Green Room.
Author’s note: Both “Hundred Flowers” and “Long March” are metaphoric uses of two famous movements of the Chinese Communist Party. “Hundred Flowers” was a brief interlude in China from 1956 to 1957 when the party encouraged a variety of views and solutions to national policy issues. “Long March” was a massive military retreat undertaken by the party’s Red Army between 1934 and 1936.
By Ling Tang
Besides collaborating directly with Chinese dance troupes, U.S. repertory companies may tour in China by following the Department of State’s Administrative Regulations on Commercial Performances (in effect since 1997). Main steps include seeking a Chinese presenter and obtaining a performance license.
The first and most critical task is to seek an appropriate Chinese presenter, either a venue or booking agency who issues an official invitation, applies for a performance license from a municipal, provincial or the central government to stage the performance, and completes all operational requirements. For instance, the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing, which is equivalent to The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., has presented American Ballet Theatre, Jennifer Muller/The Works, José Limón Dance Company, Lar Lubovitch Dance Company, and Martha Graham Dance Company. The Shanghai Grand Theatre has presented Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, Paul Taylor Dance Company, and the San Francisco Ballet. Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo’s China tour in fall 2011 was jointly presented by five venues across the country including the Shanghai Grand Theatre, Chongqing Grand Theatre, Xuzhou Concert Hall, Guangzhou Opera House, and Shenzhen Poly Theater.
In many cases, working with booking agencies is easier than working with venues. Agencies actively interact with venues, other booking agencies, and ticketing firms; they also have a greater sense of the current market. The China Arts and Entertainment Group (CAEG), a creative enterprise under the administration of the Ministry of Culture, has the responsibility to implement cultural exchanges under government agreements while also presenting and producing commercial programs. Among the American dance companies it has collaborated with are the Houston Ballet, Paul Taylor Dance Company, and New York City Ballet, along with a few musicals. Various small, private agencies and promoters are often more efficient and flexible, but also more likely to encounter administrative and financial obstacles. It is wise to ask the booking agency to provide a verifiable list of previous hosted performances before finalizing a relationship.
Unlike most Western presenters, Chinese presenters pay nothing to a limited amount of performance fees. This is true especially for artists whose names are unfamiliar to Chinese audiences. In those cases, presenters are typically less willing to gamble solely on ticket sales to break even. They might instead present the performance as a cultural exchange event to solicit support from the government. In addition, for presenters who do not own theaters, income from ticket sales would generally be used to cover theater rental costs. For instance, there are more than 80 theaters in Beijing. Except for a few major ones that do their own programming, the rest operate mainly as rental venues. Therefore, Chinese presenters are happier to work with U.S. arts groups that come with some sort of support from U.S. government, corporate, or institutional sponsors.
“The U.S. government does not support its artists’ tours abroad and, as a result, we have not been able to get our companies there. They cannot afford to go, unless they can raise corporate sponsor monies to underwrite their expenses, a difficult task for most,” said Rena Shagan of Rena Shagan Associates, Inc. On one hand, dance companies should continue advocating for the increase of cultural exchange funds. On the other hand, dance companies should be more creative with marketing and fundraising. American Ballet Theatre announced its 2009 China tour with a unique, ten-day travel package to Shanghai, Xi’an and Beijing. The package, including a tax-deductable donation to the company was able to attract a group of ABT’s loyal board members and supporters. Because cultural consumption correlates with the overall economy, metropolitan areas like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen generally have more mature arts markets. Rarely, however, do modern dance companies receive invitations to second-tier cities due to the lack of audience appreciation for the genre, referred to as a “box office poison” by Chinese presenters. A great deal also depends on branding. For instance, marketing a performance as “contemporary ballet” or “modern dance,” “emerging artists” or “masters” may have different effects on attendance. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was advertised as a contemporary ballet company more often than as a modern company during a recent tour. Astute Chinese presenters know well that due to the economic recession in the U.S., the performance market is shrinking. Some U.S. arts groups might gamble on their “Chinese fortune,” but in reality, the performance will likely not sell well in China either. In terms of marketing, however, a deficit from a “cultural exchange” tour is indeed more acceptable than deficit at home.
After having chosen a reliable local presenter, and the two sides have agreed on cost, performance details, and responsibilities, they must sign a contract. It is important to note that performance contracts in China only take effect upon the issuance of a performance license by the relevant government office. Obtaining government approval for performance content might be new to U.S. artists but is common and essential in China. The Chinese presenter should submit to the relevant government office the invitation letter, the signed contract, supporting program materials, etc. The license review process may take between a few weeks and several months as the application may be passed on from one department to another. Planning a performance tour with a large company may take a full year or even longer.
In China, many opportunities are available to participate in arts festivals. “Meet in Beijing” is a large-scale international arts festival held every April that has provided opportunities especially for some U.S. university-affiliated performing troupes, including the Brigham Young University’s International Folk Dance Ensemble, Ball State University’s Singers, and Perdue University’s All-American Marching Band. Echoing “Meet in Beijing,” the Shanghai International Arts Festival is a state-level festival held annually from October to November. New York City Ballet and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater participated in past festivals.
There are, of course, other creative ways to arrange dance tours in China. For instance, New York-based booking agent, Jodi Kaplan, and Beijing-based producer Alison Freidman co-presented the Booking Dance Beijing Festival, which coincided with the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The five-day dance showcase featured three dance companies from Beijing — National Ballet of China, Beijing Modern Dance Company, and TAO Dance Theater — alongside two U.S. dance companies, Odyssey Dance Theatre and Kim Robards Dance.
American artists ultimately must remain acutely aware that working with China is a people business. Guanxi, meaning individuals’ social capital within their group of friends, relatives, and close associates, is among many elements that Westerners might come across while interacting with Chinese counterparts. Intermediaries may prove helpful to facilitate the process, such as arts managers and consultants who are not only bilingual, but experienced with the distinct arts and cultural environments of both countries. This requires arts management training in both countries to better prepare professionals with competent skills and knowledge in a global working environment. As China opens broader relations with the West, a more productive and competitive arts market will result. This will also increase the urgency for effective business and cultural policies. At the end of the day, the U.S. and China will not be so separate in terms of their performing arts offerings. The differences are relative, and no conclusion should be drawn as to which system is better. Mao’s movement of “letting a hundred flowers bloom” from the 1950s is still perfectly sound today in promoting meaningful arts exchanges. The long march East may be arduous, but the journey is certainly worth the effort.
Resources To Connect with China:
China Arts and Entertainment Group Theaters: www.cpaa-t.com
Guangdong Modern Dance Festival: www.gdfestival.cn
Guangzhou Opera House: www.gzdjy.org
Meet in Beijing Arts Festival: www.meetinbeijing.org.cn
National Centre for the Performing Arts: www.chncpa.org
U.S. Embassy in China: www.beijing.usembassy-china.org.cn/eeperformer.html
Shanghai Grand Theater: www.shgtheatre.com
Shanghai International Arts Festival: www.artsbird.com
The Ministry of Culture: www.ccnt.gov.cn/English/index.html
Time Out Beijing: www.timeoutbeijing.com
Time Out Shanghai: www.timeoutshanghai.com
Ling Tang trained as a traditional Chinese dancer in Wuhan, China, and came to the United States in 2002. She holds a B.A. in dance and intercultural performing arts from the University of Maryland, College Park, and is completing her M.A. in arts administration at Teachers College, Columbia University. She spent the summer of 2009 in China for her master’s thesis research, where much of this story was also explored.
Special thanks to Dr. Judith Lynne Hanna of the University of Maryland and Professor Joan Jeffri of Teachers College, Columbia University for advising on the content of this article.
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