While in Beijing, we met up with Alison Friedman, one of the pioneers of international exchange through dance. While her company, Ping Pong Productions isn't a residency program per say, Alison's perspective on creative exchange and the world of modern dance is valuable for any aspiring dancer or choreographer looking to explore China.
China Residencies: Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do.
Alison Friedman: I'm the founder and director of Ping Pong Productions, and our mission is to bring China and the world together through the performing arts. We do that by bringing Chinese performing artists to tour internationally, and international artists to tour in China. We also produce collaborations and exchanges and other creative opportunities for artists all over the globe.
CR: What originally brought you to China?
AF: I've been here for twelve years, I came on a Fulbright Fellowship to study contemporary dance in China.
CR: How has China changed over the last decade?
AF: Everyone will tell you the same thing: the amount of change in China during the last twelve years is astounding. There is just more of everything, more traffic, more pollution, more people, more foreigners, more performances, theaters, opportunities, chaos, structure, contradictions...
CR: Can you give an example of a project?
AF: Beijing Dance LDTX, a modern dance company in Beijing, invited Battery Dance Company from the United States to do a project called Dancing to Connect. Battery Dance has done this project all over the world, using a week of intensive dance workshops with students from underserved populations to find confidence, creativity and their own voice and ideas through the performing arts. The program also teaches the "Dancing to Connect" method and process to local dance companies so they can later recreate the workshop after the initial collaboration finishes.
This was one of the programs we helped coordinate and manage. We sourced translators and schools, found partners and oversaw the class and the final performances with the students' parents and the local community. Everyone came away with an unbelievable sense of accomplishment.
CR: What kind of collaborations and projects would you like to see more of in the future?
AF: I actually wish there were more grassroots interactive collaborations, and Ping Pong Productions is really trying to facilitate those kinds of interactions. We're not looking for one-off wonders, we're not looking to buy and sell product, we're looking to establish relationships. It's difficult, because so much of the international interest in China is really about touring. People think that China is a massive untapped performing arts market, and they are going to make billions of dollars by touring the country. Actually, China's not an untapped market, it's an undeveloped market. Those are two very different things. Even though the government and private developers are building venues, the money is going to the buildings, not to the artists…
Although the visual arts exploded here, the same hasn't been true for the performing arts yet.
That being said, we do offer booking services occasionally. We brought the Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG) in 2012 to the Guangzhou Opera House. It was a spectacular success but it involved fundraising from all sides. We fought tooth and nail to get the Opera House to give higher fees than usual, but even those weren't enough to cover the budget, so MMDG had to fundraise for their airfares and Ping Pong had to secure hotel sponsorship because the Opera House was not willing to cover that... It was really a group effort. People who want to tour in China often need to be willing to put that kind of effort in.
The most interesting international artists to work with are those who are open and interested in learning about China's developing context. They have to be ready to expect the unexpected, not judge, and be prepared to experience a moment in history that is unstable and changing. It was different five years ago and will be different again in five months.
CR: What are some opportunities available for dancers in Beijing?
AF: It depends on what the dancers are interested in, whether it's more in traditional arts or in modern dance. Traditional arts require a certain level of language ability because most traditional dance forms are taught in Chinese at traditional institutions, and sometimes, like in Peking Opera, the art form itself requires language abilities. Communication without Chinese is easier in modern dance. There are more master classes and residencies available with local ballet and modern dance companies because they offer more flexibility to teach, or learn with artists, or create new work.
CR: Where's a good place to lear more about what's happening in the dance world in China?
AF: It's all about finding a starting place, and a lot of times in China, it's still just about showing up and learning on the ground, serendipitously. That's actually something else Ping Pong does. We act as a matchmaker and a cultural translator, helping people and organizations find the partner that makes the most sense for them. We do everything a residency does, but without the space (which is provided by the local partners.)
CR: Why is cultural diplomacy important?
AF: It's why I set up this company! It's why after all these years working in international exchange field, I haven't joined the foreign service, because that's very much about a specific country's agenda, and I'm much more interested in multi-directional understanding and overlapping agendas.
We choose to work with artists that are artistically excellent but also have something to reveal about their country and culture that may not be so well known. For example, TAO Dance Theater is a contemporary voice that really affects a change here in the ecology of the arts. They create work that no one in the outside world would imagine coming out of China. The outside conception of art coming from China is still often stuck in Peking Opera and acrobats, and that's not wrong, but it's one sided, there is more diversity of contemporary forms developing now. The same thing holds in the other direction. We worked with LA Theater Works in 2011 and 2013 to tour a docu-drama about the Pentagon Papers. It's a historical play, part of American history that a lot of Americans don't understand, and certainly people in China have no reference for it. They are using theater to present a side of american history and society that's messy, that's complicated, that's not black and white or about simple right and wrong. That's exactly the kind of culturally nuanced content that we're interested in showing.
CR: Why is China an interesting place for artists today?
AF: I'm amazed at how unbelievably open Chinese audiences can be, even though a lot of them haven't been exposed to as much avant-garde, contemporary or experimental art. There isn't that jaded, "been there, seen that" attitude that you might get in New York or Europe. What's exciting and thrilling about presenting work here is the hunger, interest and appreciation you find in audiences, and the ability to show audiences something for the very first time.
Image by photographer Matthew G. JohnsonThis interview was conducted in Beijing by Crystal Ruth Bell & Kira Simon-Kennedy for China Residencies.