Going to China Without Breaking the Bank
By Alison M. Friedman
China is exciting and chaotic and your dance company should go. Before you buy your plane tickets, however, it is important to understand the context of China’s performing arts market in order to manage your expectations and plan a strategy for touring successfully.
As I wrote in the Spring 2012 issue of the Western Arts Alliance online journal Western Ways, China is not an untapped market waiting to be accessed, but is still an undeveloped market. An untapped market is one in which the infrastructures are developed and in place, and outside arts groups need merely to tap in through standard channels such as agents, festivals, and networking conferences. Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore are examples of untapped markets for American dance companies looking for touring revenue.
The performing arts market in China, however, is undeveloped. Most audiences are still unfamiliar with contemporary performance genres such as modern dance or experimental theater, and funding and management structures are not yet fully formed or systematized.
As China moves from planned economy to market economy, it is completely restructuring funding for the arts. Until the mid-2000s, almost all performing arts venues and festivals were owned, funded, and run by the government. (This includes only officially registered, legally recognized organizations. This does not include unofficial independent collectives and organizations, which operated “under the radar” without any government financial support.) Like factories and other businesses, these arts organizations were State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs). As part of the 11th Five Year Plan, announced by the government in 2005, China initiated the process of transitioning cultural institutions from SOEs to private corporations. Accordingly, the government began reducing the levels of subsidies it provided to arts centers, opera houses, festivals, and other arts organizations, instructing them to “enter the marketplace” and rely on sponsorship and income from ticket sales.
Because the market is undeveloped, many contemporary or foreign arts genres do not yet have enough audience for venues to rely on ticket sales. Some corporations, like Bank of China and Mercedes Benz, sponsor major venues like the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing, but most corporations focus on philanthropic contributions toward health, education, or poverty-alleviation initiatives. Individual donors are few and far between. As a result, the majority of arts venues and festivals are in search of productions they feel will have easy appeal to their existing audiences and are slow to take financial risks on unknown artists or art forms.
Large world-renowned companies may receive a performance fee of some kind from venues, festivals, or promoters; however, it will be significantly below levels received in the U.S. or Europe. Smaller unknown companies should not expect performance fees of any kind. If your main reason for international touring is income from touring fees, focus on more developed markets like Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan. If you rely on fundraising more than on performance fees, a tour to China – a country playing a key role in 21st century globalization – could energize and engage your company, community, and donors. If you rely on fundraising more than on performance fees, however, a tour to China — a country playing a key role in 21st century globalization — could energize and engage your company, community, and donors.
There are great opportunities in China. China’s first official modern dance troupe, the Guangdong Modern Dance Company, was founded in 1992. More than 20 years later, there are still fewer than ten established modern dance troupes. (This number is based on both independent, unregistered as well as officially registered companies that have a consistent performing and touring schedule and have developed a ‘name’ for themselves both within China and internationally.) Most audiences are unfamiliar with the genre, but they are interested. In fact, Chinese audiences may be open and appreciative in ways that their more experienced or jaded counterparts in the U.S. are not. Audiences for performing arts in China are primarily young. The most common demographic is ages 20 – 40. If tickets are not too expensive, many students and young professionals would see performances once if not twice a week. Their tastes are omnivorous; one night a symphony, the next night a modern dance performance. Audiences are less segregated by genre than in America where it is hard to get your opera audience to check out an experimental dance form. In China, you may see the same people at both.
The excitement and inspiration of cultural exchange is a great reason to tour. Through your art, you can get to know this vast, changing country and establish relationships with artists who will give insight about what is really going on behind the newspaper headlines. To develop meaningful person-to-person engagement, you must find ways to interact beyond the confines of the proscenium stage. When looking to tour China, master classes, lecture demonstrations, and creative outreach programs can help you get your foot in the door and identify local partners.
A performance tour may be the second or third step of a long-term China plan. It might make sense to begin with teaching residencies and lecture demonstrations, which are not only more affordable (four plane tickets instead of 15, for example), they also allow for deeper partnerships with local Chinese academies, artists and arts organizations. These partnerships are invaluable resources for later projects. They will help you build an audience and earn the interest of local venues and presenters. These partners will be your network when it is time to tour.
Although the more developed arts markets in China’s three largest cities — Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou — may seem like the obvious places to start looking for partners, smaller U.S. dance companies looking to enter the China market should get more creative. The “Bei-Shang-Guang” triumvirate is becoming saturated with big name American companies and with government-subsidized European groups.
Smaller U.S. companies may want to explore second- and third-tier cities. Although this may seem counter-intuitive, greater opportunities for smaller companies could be possible in these markets. Most of these smaller Chinese cities are still large by U.S. standards — there are 33 cities with populations greater than two million. Many boast grand performing arts centers and arts academies, as well as numerous traditional performing arts troupes open to exchanges. Because these cities are off the beaten touring path, institutions there welcome international programming to raise their profile and may have municipal resources to contribute for a visiting American company. In 2011, Los Angeles-based Lula Washington Dance Theatre staged a successful twelve-city China tour without going to Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou. Venues in larger cities would have viewed this small, internationally unknown company as too risky to sell tickets, but cities like Zhengzhou and Kaifeng were thrilled to host a high-quality company with an American pedigree, and even leveraged some local resources to support the tour.
One way to access these smaller cities is through the Sister Cities International program. Many Sister Cities partnerships have offices in China and budgets for programming. These budgets are typically used for conferences or business exchanges, but some of the organizations are looking for more innovative ways to deepen cross-cultural relationships between the two cities. What better way than through a dance exchange program?
Many American colleges and universities have partnerships with Chinese universities. These partnerships are another useful starting point. They may not lead to an immediate performance of your full company in China, but they can help you lay the groundwork. You may start by bringing two to four company members over for workshops, and from there you will be able to build more opportunities for ongoing exchange and eventual touring.
Working in developing markets requires the investment of time and resources. It is a multi-step process, and tours do not happen quickly. The benefit to working slowly, however, is the ability to develop lasting relationships and really get to know another culture and country’s ways of working. Plan to enjoy the process of developing those relationships, instead of just looking to book dates.
So why go to China? Because it’s enlightening, educational, and fun! China’s performing arts market is developing in exciting and adventurous ways. What an opportunity to be a part of it. Dive in! The process will be surprising and confusing and inspiring. For indeed, creativity is born of chaos.
For additional resources and information on touring China, click here.
Photos: Guangdong Modern Dance Company, China’s first modern troupe, founded in 1992, is seen here in Lui Qui’s "Mountain and Water." Photo byLin Xiaoyi, courtesy Guangdong Modern Dance Company.
Lula Washington Dance Theatre of Los Angeles performing with dancers from China during the company’s 2012 tour of China, including a stop in Zhengzhou. Courtesy Lula Washington Dance Theatre.
Alison M. Friedman is the founding director of Ping Pong Productions, a producing and consulting organization headquartered in Beijing with the mission of cultural diplomacy. Clients include TAO Dance Theater, Mark Morris Dance Group, the U.S. Embassy in China, the British Council, Guangzhou Municipal Bureau of Culture, and Los Angeles Theatre Works. As director of Ping Pong Productions, Friedman works closely with Chinese and international governments and arts organizations to facilitate collaborations, tours, and lasting artistic relationships.
Fluent in Mandarin Chinese and political negotiations, Friedman has worked in the performing arts in China for more than a decade. She served as international director of the Beijing Modern Dance Company, general manager of Oscar-winning composer Tan Dun’s company Parnassus Productions, Inc., and as a producer and host on Chinese national radio and television programs. Friedman graduated Phi Beta Kappa/magna cum laude from Brown University with a degree in Chinese literature/literary translation. She was a Fulbright fellow to China, an arts management fellow at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and a fellow of the International Society for the Performing Arts.
An expert in China’s developing arts market, Friedman lectures internationally in both English and Mandarin Chinese, including keynotes at the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, Asia Society, Brown University, People’s University of China, China International Performing Arts Fair Guangzhou, Fulbright Association 31st Annual Conference, and Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. She has contributed articles and chapters to journals and collections published in the United States, China, and Europe. Friedman has been cited as an expert on Chinese performing arts by the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and China Daily.
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