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November 21, 2020

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Local dance troupes fill a void created by COVID

WHEN Chen Li, project director of Shanghai International Dance Center, peruses the tentative performance schedule for 2021, she is struck by the fact that international artists and troupes are absent for the first time since the venue opened four years ago.

Though the coronavirus pandemic has severely restrained global travel, Chen said the unfortunate situation has one positive side. It gives domestic artists more chance to take the stage and exhibit their creativity.

“We rarely have such an opportunity to pay attention to ourselves,” Chen told Shanghai Daily. “We know a lot about the world, but what do we really know about ourselves? I think that question has arisen in many minds during the pandemic, especially during the quarantine period. The question is also applicable to arts management and artistic creation.”

Shanghai International Dance Center’s two theaters host more than 250 dance performances every year. International artists and troupes comprise more than a third of them.

The theater, like all others, was forced to suspend operation during the worst months of the pandemic. It reopened in late May, staging performances by domestic artists and troupes.

Chen said Shanghai audiences have shown in the past that they prefer international productions, if given a choice. Appearances by foreign troupes generally sell 30-40 percent more tickets than domestic productions.

“In Shanghai, a considerable number of audiences come only to see foreign performances, even though the ticket prices are higher,” she said. “I think they believe that foreign countries are more advanced in contemporary dance and, therefore, are better.”

That bias works both ways. Some Chinese contemporary dance companies or artists who have achieved international fame rarely tour in China.

“They have won a good reputation abroad, but domestic audiences hardly know about them or have access to their performances,” she said. “Sometimes we don’t lack connection with the world, but we lack connection with ourselves.”

Chen said she does see changes afoot.

“Many artists have begun to devote themselves to creating new works,” she said. “They don’t come because of invitations to international dance festivals or from new grants. Artists are creating new works to calm themselves and to dig deep into their souls.”

A new dance production — “Will the Snake Eat Up the Motherboard?” — has been created by the center’s commissioned artist Jiang Fan. It is an example of how the pandemic has influenced artistic creation.

Jiang was stuck at home in Shanghai during the height of the outbreak, playing online games with her husband to kill time.

“Such games were major entertainment for many people during that period,” Jiang told Shanghai Daily. “It was my husband’s hobby. I always wanted to create a game-themed dance, and this year afforded me the best opportunity.”

Jiang said people tend to rely on the virtual world when face-to-face communications with others are cut off.

She said her new work was inspired by the realization that the virtual world could become the new “playground” if quarantine becomes a continuing feature of the future.

“My heroine is a member of the virtual community,” she explained. “In real life, her body is weak. In the virtual world, she takes on the role of an assassin. Her consciousness is no longer constrained to her body. She is no longer lonely or insecure. However, when she returns to the real world, the discrepancy between her body and her ideal begin to torture her.”

Jiang said her dance doesn’t judge games or the virtual world. Rather, it raises the question: When kisses and hugs can be replaced by clicks and double clicks, is the human body and life experience still necessary?

“Will the Snake Eat Up the Motherboard?” is part of Shanghai International Dance Center’s youth cultivation project, which supports domestic young artists with original creations.

Another production the center is promoting is “Reflection,” an original work by seven dancers from the Xie Xin Dance Theater troupe.

Shanghai-based dancer and choreographer Xie Xin, leader of the troupe, did not intercede in the artistic expression of fellow dancers. Rather, she encou­raged them to creatively present their thoughts and views of life in their own styles.

“Reflection” will be staged at Shanghai International Dance Center’s experimental theater on December 2.

Xie said her troupe has already canceled two international tours scheduled for 2021 because of the pandemic.

“The pause has allowed our dancers to do some thinking and to conserve their energy for a new round of self-breakthroughs after the pandemic,” she said.

In the absence of international performances, the Xie Xin Dance Theater has introduced dance classes for the public this year. It’s a way for dancers to connect with a wider audience and promote contemporary dance.

The troupe has also reached out to other domestic dance troupes and artists for joint performances.


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