Executive Director's Report from China

Friday, August 14, 2015

Report from China

There was one quality of the performing arts exhibit hall that shouted CHINA to me:  the volume of the room.

There was no requirement to use headphones when playing audio or video at the 2015 China Association of Performing Arts (CAPA) Annual Conference in Enshi, China. The exhibit hall featured an assembly space for panels and performances, and the audio from the assembly space was piped throughout the exhibits via the hall’s muscular PA system. As my translator said, “For Chinese people, if it’s not loud, it’s not busy.”

CAPA’s 80-100 exhibitors included a range of producing companies, media companies, government agencies, and art brokers. A few attracted considerable traffic, others were consistently busy, and some appeared eager to catch the eye of anyone passing by. Human nature crosses all cultural boundaries.

Over the past eight months, I had the opportunity to visit three of China’s major performing arts conferences as a guest of the organizers: The China International Performing Arts Fair in Guangzhou (September 22-24, 2014); the Shanghai International Performing Arts Fair (October 17-20, 2014); and the aforementioned CAPA Annual Conference (April 21-23, 2015). All three conferences had their own distinct focus, culture, and strengths.

A visitor to the WAA booth in Guangzhou. 

Progressive and Prosperous Guangzhou

Guangzhou, in Guangdong province, held the newest of the conferences. Organizers of The China International Performing Arts Fair wanted to build international participation, and they were especially interested in fostering relationships with the Western Arts Alliance and its members. I was part of a small delegation from WAA, including Michael Alexander, Grand Performances; Debbie Peters, Magnum Opus Management; and Cindy Hwang, a WAA Board member and Booking Associate of Concert Artist Guild who is fluent in Mandarin.

Several qualities made this conference stand out. First, the dialogue in Guangzhou—both in informal casual conversation and the plenary sessions—was much more open and interactive than similar sessions in Shanghai or at CAPA. This had as much to do with the culture of southern China as the intent of the organizers. Guangzhou—China’s fourth largest city, and the largest in southern China—is more progressive and prosperous than other major cities in China. Guangzhou’s GDP per capita is second only to Shenzhen. Second, the conference organizers were eager to grow the conference, and they welcomed input from the delegates.

The Arts Midwest delegation at the CAPA Conference in Enshi: David Fraher, Susan Chandler, Cathy Barbash and their host translators.


A Strong International Program at Shanghai

Shanghai International Performing Arts Fair (SPAF) had the strongest international program. Of course, the 2015 conference marked Shanghai’s 17th conference. Shanghai’s reputation as a beautiful, cosmopolitan, and modern city made it an obvious destination for international delegations and visitors.

In recent years, acting on feedback from foreign delegates, SPAF added a curated showcase and pitch sessions modeled on those done at the International Society for the Performing Arts. The showcase, Rising Artists Work! (R.A.W!)—curated by major artists such as composer Tan Dun and Cloud Gate Artistic Director Lin Hwai-min—spotlighted emerging artists and new work. Several of the pitch sessions solicited proposals from international exhibitors (with two-way translation), which was an effective opportunity for foreign participants.

Pipa player Zhao Cong showcasing in Enshi.

CAPA’s Surprising Showcase

With approximately 800 attendees, the CAPA Conference in Enshi was considerably larger than the conferences in Guangzhou and Shanghai. The international delegation, however, was quite small. I joined member Kristopher McDowell of KMP Artists; CINARS CEO Alain Paré and a delegation from Arts Midwest including Executive Director David Fraher, Deputy Director Susan Chandler, and China Consultant Cathy Barbash.

At CAPA, like many of the conferences in China, international delegates were asked to give presentations or participate in panels. My talk, Crossing the Pacific, Navigating the Complexities of International Exchange, focused on the keys to doing business with North America:  preparation, transparency, timely communication, and commitment. CAPA arranged for Chinese experts to give formal responses to presentations by overseas guests. Mr. Xu Shipi, a professor of cultural management and principal editor of the Ministry of Culture’s journal, gave the response to my speech. Mr. Xu seemed to like my speech (or at least his translated comments indicated he did!)

One of the most surprising elements of the CAPA conference was the official showcase program. The program wasn’t much different from what we do at WAA. The artists were selected by the Board and Staff of CAPA; the showcase took place onsite (in a hotel ballroom with a permanent stage); and each artist had 15-20 minutes.

All of the artists were quite good, but many tried to do too much—looping, performing to playback, or performing with video. Most of the showcase performances would have benefited from a simpler approach.

Nevertheless, the showcase conveyed the quality and talent of each artist. One such example was Zhao Lei. Mr. Zhao played the erhu, a two-stringed, bowed musical instrument sometimes called “the Chinese violin.”  He performs around the world and often crosses over into non-traditional genres. Zhao Lei is a rising star in China for good reason.

Take a listen to Mr. Zhao playing with the Swiss pianist Marc Méan.

Zhao Cong (no relation to Zhao Lei) was another featured artist. She played the pipa, a four-stringed instrument sometimes called the “Chinese lute.” Here she performs with an unnamed string quartet.

A Memorandum of Understanding

Like many of the Chinese performing arts conferences, the last day included signing ceremonies—formalities that demonstrated outcomes of the conference. The press was invited and interested delegates gathered to witness the formal signing. In an agreement brokered by CAPA, WAA signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Performance Alliance of Western China (PAWC).

In some ways, PAWC reminded me of the early days of WAA. It’s an organization of 30 performing arts centers in western China with no staff, but it functions as a collective to address professional issues, programming, and production (it’s not unusual in China for performing arts centers to both present and produce work). PAWC is chaired by Mr. Bao Chaoyang, of Kunming Theatre Corporation, in Kunming, Yunnan.

WAA and PAWC’s Memorandum of Understanding is a non-binding agreement to pursue long-term cooperation. This cooperation could include delegations to each other’s conferences or events, professional development, consultation to promote touring in our respective regions, and sharing information/resources on practical issues such visa, taxes, riders, contracts, and so forth.

Sichuan Opera in Chengdu, famous for it's "face-changing" mask work. 

A Whirlwind Visit

Following the CAPA Conference, I made a quick whirlwind visit to PAWC members in western China, with stops at Chengdu (Sichuan), Nanning (Guangxi), and Kunming (Yunnan). It was really just a chance to get to know the members, see their venues, and learn about their programs. Western China is known for being home to some of China’s most vibrant ethnic (indigenous) cultures.

My visits to Nanning and Kunming both emphasized the opportunity to work with indigenous artists and cultures. In Nanning, I visited the Guangxi Museum of Nationalities, and a showcase at the Nanning Multi-Ethnic Opera Company (which produces acrobats, theater, musicals, and traditional Chinese opera).  

The Highlight of My Trip

In Kunming, the hometown of Bao Chaoyang, we went into the mountains to visit a traditional Miao village. Miao are known in the U.S. as Hmong. Yunnan shares its western and southern border with Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam. It’s tropical, mountainous, and beautiful.

The French missionaries converted the Miao to Christianity in the early 1900s and then taught them choral singing for the liturgy. After more than 100 years, the missionaries are gone (driven out by the Maoists), but the Miao remain Christians. Choral singing is now fused with traditional Miao culture (not unlike the Maori). Yunnan hosts an annual Miao Choral festival and choirs from around Yunnan travel to Kunming for the competition.

In a tiny village a couple of hours outside Kunming, my hosts and I sat down to a simple Miao lunch hosted by the village church, and then we enjoyed a short performance by their choir. It was a truly extraordinary experience, in such a remote and traditional village, to hear the Miao sing their traditional music with Western choral harmonies. It was the highlight of my trip.

Experiences like these help forge relationships, deepen understanding, and build knowledge. They are important first steps in promoting business and exchange between Western Arts Alliance and China, whether it’s with the Performance Alliance Western China or A. C. Orange, a private Chinese entertainment company not owned by the government. There is still much work to do and ground to cover (cultural differences, aesthetics, language, funding, and business practice, to name a few). I believe as China converts to a market-based economy, there will considerable opportunity for U.S. and Canadian artists, agents, and presenters in China’s vast, diverse, and fertile cultural sector.

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Tim Wilson, Executive Director / Western Arts Alliance