Mapping China: Performing Arts

Photo of TAIJI by Shaolin Tagou Education Group

GENERAL OVERVIEW of China’s Performing Arts Market

Performing artists in every country face funding challenges, so what is unique about China’s situation? One word: change. As China moves from a planned to a market economy, it is converting not just State-run factories to private enterprises, but government-run theatre venues and performance troupes as well, completely restructuring funding for the arts. In recent developments, the 11th Five-Year Plan announced in 2006 launched the next stage of the government’s plans to systematically reduce levels of subsidy for performing arts troupes and venues, in an effort to encourage them to rely on the market.

The challenge, however, is that there is not yet a developed market with diverse income streams on which to rely. With no independent foundations for the performing arts, limited corporate sponsorship, and individual donors few and far between, venues and festivals are overly reliant on ticket sales. As a result, the majority of arts venues and festivals seek productions they feel will appeal to their existing audiences, and they hesitate to take financial risks on unknown artists or art forms. Conservative programming in China, therefore, now results not from a fear of government censorship, but from a fear of the bottom line.

Venues and festivals rely heavily on international governments to subsidise 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 nation’s dance, theatre, and orchestra tours in China. 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, Asian and Australian counterparts. Beijing’s prestigious National Centre for the Performing Arts presented its first American theatre company as late as 2013. American groups are forced to rely primarily on their own private fundraising efforts for tours like these, as the American government subsidises very little for international touring and fees from local Chinese venues are insufficient to cover costs.

Although international groups touring China face considerable financial hurdles, China’s own contemporary performance troupes and individual artists must tackle far more threatening challenges when it comes to the economics of survival. While the government has reduced its support for large state-funded troupes, alternative funding mechanisms for smaller independent artists and groups have not yet fully developed.

In 2014, my company Ping Pong Productions produced a forth global tour of independent Chinese dance group TAO Dance Theatre. We brought them to 20 cities in 12 countries, over five continents and 42 shows, including world premieres commissioned by NorrlandsOperan (Sweden), Adelaide Festival Centre (Australia) and the London Sadler’s Wells Theatre (UK).

These tours represent more than mere feathers in the proverbial cap; they are a necessity for survival. Independent companies in China have nowhere to turn for financial subsidies, and local presenters like the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing even charge Chinese artists fees as high as €40,000-plus to use their venues.

In spite of these (sometimes crippling) financial challenges, China’s rapid rate of change means that new developments are already in the works to address the situation and foster a healthier and more diverse arts ecology. Although the Ministry of Culture of China does not offer overhead support to independent groups within the country, they do at times cover international airfares, which facilitates companies to tour abroad. The 2015 world tour we produced for TAO Dance Theatre included performances in 14 countries, including at the Edinburgh International Festival, Helsinki Festival, India Attakkalari Biennial among others, and were made possible thanks to travel support from the Ministry of Culture’s various regional departments. In 2016, we are bringing independent theatre director Wang Chong and his large-scale contemporary adaptation “Thunderstorm 2.0” to the Israel Festival in Jerusalem. This would not be possible without the support of the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Culture’s generous subsidy for airfare and freight, as well as underwriting some of the artist fees.

In the past four years, both national and local government arts institutions have set up ‘creation grants’ to commission short new works by younger choreographers, directors and composers. In December 2013, then Minister of Culture Cai Wu announced the establishment of the China National Arts Fund (CNAF), funded primarily by the central government in addition to public donations. CNAF is the first government entity in China to offer funding directly to individual performing artists and unregistered collectives. The Shanghai International Arts Festival set up a program “Rising Artists Works (RAW)” in 2012 to offer small creation grants to emerging artists, as well as the opportunity to showcase works-in-progress during the annual Shanghai Performing Arts Fair. China’s National Dancer’s Association has now held two years of funding and performance support for independent emerging choreographers from throughout China to stage new works in Beijing at both the Poly Theatre and the National Centre for the Performing Arts.

The current zeitgeist in China gradually is opening its awareness towards the need for mechanisms to support process, not just product. Until now, China’s funding systems and leadership expectations have been focused on churning out products to tour. What funding there was from national and municipal governments carried strict requirements to deliver a finished production within a very strict time-frame to tour within China or abroad. This environment created further challenges for independent small-to-medium-sized performing arts groups who could not meet these strict demands and therefore were ineligible for the funding. These strictures actually created more challenges for smaller groups than opportunities. The perhaps ironic benefit of not receiving any government subsidy is that artists face no pressure to deliver a quick product to tour. This allows smaller independent artists to find ways to continue quietly developing their individual artistic voices without capitulating to the commercial imperative. Many smaller groups and individuals receive support from foundations and organizations in Europe such as Ibsen International and Sadler’s Wells.

Certain small independent venues like Penghao Theatre in Beijing and Trojan House Theatre in Hangzhou provide space for experimentation as well, including free or low-cost rehearsal space as well as opportunities to showcase work and works-in-progress.

Private organizations and quasi-private-governmental organizations are investing in the arts and cultural sectors in new ways. The effort to draw tourists through cultural attractions is a growing phenomenon which began with Zhang Yimou’s “Impressions of West Lake.” Local tourism bureaus like those in Xi’an, Guangxi and Henan have invested heavily to produce large-scale outdoor performances. Many independent choreographers and dancers survive by getting gigs choreographing large scale extravaganzas for local tourism bureaus, as well as for China Central Television. Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign launched in 2012 has reduced the funding for these kinds of local productions, which were also notorious avenues for local bureaucrats to redirect government funds. 

Just because larger presenters in China might be generally risk averse, this does not mean audiences are too. China’s audiences are open, intelligent, and eager. Audience demographics tend to be focused around the age of 20-40 years old. If tickets are not overly expensive, many students and young professionals will see performances once if not two or more times per week. Most dance and theatre performances in China by both international and Chinese groups include post-performance discussions with the artists. More than half of audiences, even in large 2000-seat venues, often will stay for these discussions, and the discussions frequently last as long as an hour or more, until the venues need to usher everyone out.

The biggest problems in China’s arts market right now are not about audiences, nor the artists; they’re about the infrastructure connecting the two. In addition to current conversations focused on how to foster “emerging artists” and “new talents,” there are growing conversations focused on the parallel need to train independent producers and managers to act as the infrastructure to support these artists, to manage them, produce their new works, and tour them in China and internationally. Both British Council and Goethe Institut have organized different kinds of arts management training programs for a number of years now. On the domestic side, the Ministry of Culture as well as the China National Arts Fund support various programs in arts management training. These include training programs within China, as well as sending arts managers abroad for internship-type placements at arts institutions in countries including Australia, the US, the UK, France, and Germany.

China’s performing arts market continues to evolve as rapidly and inconsistently as the rest of its economy. Large cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and now Shenzhen still outpace cities like Hangzhou, Wuhan, and Xi’an in terms of international programs touring into the cities as well as fostering an environment for its own home-grown small-to-medium sized non-governmental troupes, venues and festivals.  

 

NOTE TO READERS: China has vast and diverse traditional dance and theatre/opera forms and troupes. The semi-official count of these traditional troupes exceeds the thousands. Each province, city, and village may have at least one, often more. Most of the traditional song and dance troupes are state-owned/run troupes that are now being slowly privatized (or disappearing) as China shifts from a planned to market economy.

This Mapping report focuses on the much smaller independent sector comprising more contemporary groups and artists. This focus is based on the not-necessarily-accurate assumption that international readers of this Mapping Report are interested in collaborating with more contemporary art forms and artists. It also assumes China’s contemporary performing artists would be more open to such collaborations.

Readers, however, should please keep in mind that as China’s arts ecology evolves, traditional troupes are increasingly open and interested in collaborations with international artists, performers, designers, creators. There already exist examples of creative collaborations with China’s traditional shadow puppet troupes, Kunqu Opera artists, and others.

Collaborations could be not only between Chinese and international dance and theatre makers, but also with technical designers including stage, lighting, sound, etc. as well as composers / music artists, script writers, etc. In fact, a large untapped resource for possible exchanges and collaborations involve the technical design aspects of performance. Lighting and sound technicians have limited training opportunities in China, especially for contemporary performance. Chinese performers are looking for technicians from abroad to work with them to realize their visions. Chinese technicians also are eager for apprenticeship opportunities to help them hone and develop their technical crafts and creative capacities.

The scope of this report cannot encompass all of those examples; therefore, the author hopes readers keep in mind the numerous creative possibilities that exist and do not feel limited to the selected examples in this brief report.

 

About the Author 

Ms. Alison M. Friedman, Creative and Executive Director, Ping Pong Productions