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When Alison Friedman first came to China in 2002 on a Fulbright fellowship to research modern dance, local residents had little idea what it was.
“Most people would say, ‘Oh, you mean hip-hop?’ or ‘You mean disco in a bar?'” recalled Friedman, who later founded Ping Pong Productions to develop cultural exchange projects between Chinese and international performers.
“Now when I say I research modern dance, they’ll say, ‘Oh, like Pina Bausch?’ (the late German dancer, choreographer and director) or ‘Oh, like the Beijing Modern Dance Company?’ The difference is amazing. People are more aware of what it is, and there are definitely bigger and bigger audiences.”
The birth of modern dance in China can be traced back to the latter stages of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) when Yu Rongling, the daughter of the then ambassador to France, studied with Isadora Duncan in Paris. Yu later returned to China and performed this type of new dance for Empress Dowager Cixi.
For decades, modern dance remained at a distance from the public because of suppression of the body, individuality and personality, said Willy Tsao, founder of the City Contemporary Dance Company in Hong Kong and a company director of BeijingDance / LDTX. Chinese audiences were not familiar with the form until recently, when the infrastructure for modern dance underwent big changes. In the past, the government only supported State-run dance companies, leaving individual artists and unregistered troupes with no application channel for financial support. Later, the government began to recognize the huge overseas interest in contemporary China, including its modern culture and ideas. The past five years have seen increasing support for independent modern dance groups.
For example, the China International Culture Association will be one of the sponsors of TAO Dance Theater, an unregistered, independent group of five dancers, when the troupe performs at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York in July.
The change in government attitudes is significant, according to Friedman, because the authorities used to categorize modern dance as a “foreign art” and considered it either dangerous or irrelevant to China. But now they are willing to pay independent artists to travel abroad.
“First, you have to have a change in attitude, and then you can change the system,” she said, adding that although the infrastructure has changed in some ways, the system and the funding structure for independent art groups is still developing.
Many unregistered, small and medium-sized modern groups are still not eligible to apply for government subsidies. But if they do manage to register, they will have to pay large amounts in taxes, which are sometimes far greater than any financial support they receive from the government.
“For a period of time, they (the government) supported certain projects, but only large projects,” said Friedman. “That is changing now. If you only support big projects, it’s not a market. A market is like a forest. You can’t just have big trees. That’s not a healthy market. You need big, commercial. You need small, experimental. You need diversity.”
Tour to survive
In common with many other independent modern dance groups, the survival of TAO Dance Theater has relied on international touring since it was founded in 2008. Following its first US performance at the American Dance Festival in 2010, the group has received a growing number of invitations to perform at art festivals around the world. These tours allow the company to cover all of its expenses, including a monthly salary of 3,000 yuan ($476) for each of the dancers.
In September, the troupe moved to its current studio in a desolate part of Beijing’s Chaoyang district. From the city center, it takes a journey of three subway transfers plus a bus ride to reach the 280-square-meter studio which costs nearly 80,000 yuan a year to rent.
Before they rented the studio, the dancers were forced to scour the city to find affordable rehearsal spaces. The rent for such places is very expensive, said Tao Ye, the founder of TAO Dance Theater. He estimated that a basic studio of about 200 sq m and close to the Beijing Dance Academy would cost 5,000 yuan a day. Even the cheapest spaces cost 300 to 500 yuan a day and the dancers have to compete with a number of TV and theater crews who also want to rent the space, but usually have stronger connections with those in charge.
The cheapest rehearsal place Tao discovered was in the city of Zhuozhou, Hebei province. There, a wooden-floored studio of 100 sq m costs only 5 yuan a day. However, to get there required a five-hour round trip every day for three weeks, during the hardest times for the troupe.
Tao also noted that stage rents are surprisingly high in China. For example, a three-hour performance at the Beijing People’s Liberation Army Opera House will cost 40,000 yuan, and that’s excluding expenses for lighting, rubber flooring, air conditioning and publicity posters. On the basis of those figures, Tao calculated that a three-day performance would cost 200,000 to 300,000 yuan, but that only around 1,000 tickets would be sold at prices ranging from 80 to 320 yuan. Depending on its agreement with the opera house, TAO may receive 10 percent of the box office, although that figure can sometimes rise to 40 or 50 percent. Therefore, staging a show at the opera house would mean racking up a debt of more than 100,000 yuan, according to Tao.
“For modern dance in China, domestic performances mean losing money,” he said.
Although audience numbers have been growing, the core figure is no more than 3,000 in large cities such as Beijing, said Tsao. “Modern dance only belongs to a small circle, no matter how hard you try to promote it,” he said.
BeijingDance / LDTX sold 500 tickets when it gave a performance at the National Center for the Performing Arts and 1,200 tickets at the Haidian Theater, but the company was forced to restrict the number of performances because audience numbers are still small.
It’s a classic Catch-22 situation. “Modern dance is a new type of art, so it basically has no audience. If there is no audience, the theaters do not have the courage to put on performances. But if there are no performances, how can you cultivate an audience?” asked Friedman.
The spread of dance
Although the relationship between modern dance performances, theaters and audiences in China has devolved into this vicious circle, insiders still believe the form has great potential in China.
During the past 10 years, an increasing number of freelance dancers and small, independent collectives have come to the fore. Modern dance groups have spread from the large urban centers such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou to second- and third-tier cities such as Zhengzhou in Henan province and Changde in Hunan province. Many educational establishments, including Guangxi University and Jiangxi Normal University, have established dance departments, where students use modern techniques to express their take on modern life.
From Hong Kong to the third-tier cities, modern dance is moving in lockstep with social changes in China, said Tsao. Modern dance always appears when the economy has just started to develop but the culture has not yet caught up, so a large number of artists feel depressed and need a form of self-expression. He believes modern dance is on the way up in China.
“I always tell others that, for China, modern dance is our renaissance,” he said.
“Chinese culture has a lot to do with language, rather than the body. It may be that the influence of Confucianism has led us to ignore our bodies for a long time. But we also have Taoism as another source of our culture, and it pays a lot of attention to the body. Now, the people enjoy relatively more freedom than when China started on its journey after the reform and opening-up (in the 1980s). Perhaps, modern dance will become the hallmark of China’s renaissance.”
Gao Yanjinzi, artistic director of the Beijing Modern Dance Company, is also confident about performing modern dance and running a company in China.
“My confidence lies in one thing: China needs to know what modern art is. It’s decided by our times,” she said. “How can you say that China has no market for modern dance, when there are still so many people who haven’t seen it yet? Indeed, China has a huge market for dance. To develop the market, we need good works and good performances.”
So far, Chinese audiences have not seen truly powerful and influential works, according to Tao. Some choreographers incorporated their frustrations and the pressures of modern society in their work by making dancers scream, swing their hair and go crazy on stage. But that only cast a pall of gloom over audiences.
As a result, many dance groups and performers fell out of favor and were disbanded. Tao estimated that no more than 100 professional dancers and choreographers are left nationwide after all the years of competition.
He also noted that modern Chinese dance has not won as much international attention as has been reported by some Western media, but that it has gained coverage as a result of China’s economic growth and growing global influence. Back in 2008-09, many international art festivals and foundations searched for young Chinese artists to stage performances with an anti-China theme, but Tao always turned down those offers because it was not in keeping with what he wanted to do with his art.
“Your work should move along with the times. That’s the most important thing to keep in mind,” he said. “An artist has to think about what is happening in his time, what changes are taking place and which position will suit him best.”