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February 19, 2011

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Private players get public hand

Private performing arts troupes have long complained about a lack of official support, and now the Shanghai government pledges to make it easier for them to perform. Zhang Qian explains.

A modern dancer moves, revolving and twisting her body, then freezes. Another dancer assumes that frozen position, delivers her own message and freezes. Another picks up, and so on. The dance flows like a game with definite rules in which everyone makes a physical statement.

This is a scene from the Jin Xing Dance Theater's latest creation, "Different Loneliness," which will premiere at the Joyce Theater in New York in November. It explores the different kinds of loneliness felt by people living in cities and the countryside and combines modern dance with ethnic dance from the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

The performance will mark the first time the noted modern dance theater in New York has invited a Chinese troupe, according to Jin Xing, founder and artistic director of the troupe.

Jin's avant-garde, provocative work is famous, and especially appreciated overseas, though local audiences sometimes find it difficult to understand. Still, China's first privately owned contemporary dance theater has become as popular as many state-owned troupes, but has received trifling or no government support, according to Jin.

Jin, a transsexual contemporary dance celebrity, founded the theater in 1999 in Beijing before moving to Shanghai.

"That's not the only success story. Quite a few privately owned art groups have grown in Shanghai, despite very limited official support," says culture official Liu Wenguo. "They are not an inconsequential power in the Chinese art industry," adds Liu, who is artistic director of the Shanghai Municipal Administration of Culture, Radio Broadcasting, Film and TV.

He tells Shanghai Daily in an interview that a raft of improvements are on the way, including funds, grants, awards, access to cheaper space and promotion in the state media.

According to Liu, there are around 80 registered, or licensed, private performance groups in Shanghai, representing around 80 percent of the city's all performance groups, including state-sponsored. Many perform in communities, without proper stages. Around 7,500 performances are staged annually by registered private troupes, and the number increases by around 1,000 each year.

True to its word, the city government recently gave incentive bonuses of 20,000 yuan (US$3,038) to 50,000 yuan to each nine groups, Liu says.

Last month these nine groups performed in the first Shanghai Private Art Performance Groups Exhibition at the Shanghai Mass Art Center. It was the first such event and the government pledges to continue it.

These registered groups range from traditional Chinese theater to hip-hop, classical music, ethnic drumming, modern dance and drama theater.

As for the groups that are unlicensed or unregistered, there's no government support and no break on rental costs.

For many years, China's culture and arts industry was totally state-subsidized and only after economic reforms took hold in the 1980s did the government limit subsidies and require troupes to respond to the market. But economic support was never withdrawn and state-supported troupes are far better off than others. During this reform period, private groups emerged and struggled in the new marketplace.

Private groups have long wished for government support so they showcase their unique points of view and compete with state-supported groups.

The Jin Xing Dance Theater struggled at first. Although it was approved and licensed, the government provided little support or encouragement. Since it was non-mainstream, to say the least, the group had to develop its own market.

"We had no fame, no financial support, no theater, and we had no access to media promote our works then," says Jin in an interview with Shanghai Daily. "All we had was passion for creation and performance."

As a private group, it paid all operating expenses, rented performance space at full price and developed its own promotions. State-run groups, on the other hand, not only received (and still do) subsidies but also got big discounts on theater rental and rental and received abundant promotions.

"We can't get financial support from the government, since most of it goes to official groups. We can't get sponsorship from local businesses since they prefer foreign troupes, not Chinese groups," says Jin.

"It is quite ironic that over the years the most generous support I have received has come from foreign culture-related sponsors in China," she says.

Even when the theater gained recognition and won praise, Jin got scant support. In 2008, she applied for 1.5 million yuan in government sponsorship, but received only around 40,000 yuan. In that year, state-owned Shanghai Opera House received around 14 million yuan for its new production "Zhou Xuan."

"At that moment, I felt like a step-daughter who could never expect as much care from the mother than a natural daughter," says Jin.

To keep afloat for 11 years, Jin used all her savings, moved from a big apartment to a middle-sized flat, and finally to a small flat.

The same is true for James Quan, who in 2006 established the Shanghai Jiangzhou Drum Company, a folk drumming group with around 50 members. To save money, his family works voluntarily, painting drums, sewing costumes and doing other tasks.

An even bigger problem for many private groups, registered or not, has been lack of media promotion. Some extremely successful groups have received media coverage, but when there's a scheduling conflict with official groups, they don't get ink.

Quan, who established the drumming company, knew he had to get a license, otherwise there would be no hope of success in showcasing the ancient folk music. He managed to get one after a year, thanks to his years of work in performance management at the Shanghai City Dance Company.

The process of getting licensed is arduous, according to Quan. Applicants are required to explain, among other things, why they are significant and how they fill a niche or contribute to the cultural scene. Personal guanxi or connections do somewhat help, he says.

"A private group can still perform in Shanghai without a license, if it can get the physical space, but only a licensed group has any chance of space in a newspaper, even a tiny space," says Quan. "And media promotion is vital for an art group's livelihood since that's a big way to attract an audience."

Despite his license and network of contacts from working with the dance company, he still gets trifling media exposure.

The road has been a little easier for the hip-hop troupe Dream Factory Dance Group established in 2004. Since many young people like hip-hop and there are few such troupes, they found it much easier to get performing chances.

"Though operating was difficult at first, since 2006 the group has been invited fairly often to perform on TV programs and in commercial shows, getting considerable exposure," says Han Haijian, spokesman for Dream Factory Dance Group.

"Private art groups have contributed a lot to China's culture industry and deserve government support," says Liu, the municipal culture official in Shanghai. "But since the government for years had to pay a lot to keep state groups running, it was difficult to spare funding for private groups until recently."

Today private groups can expect more encouragement, financial incentives, low-cost venues and better media exposure to provide a relatively even playing field for both private and state-run groups, according to Liu.

Private performance groups will receive cash awards for outstanding creativity, performance and popularity, says Liu. They can also seek grants from the Shanghai Cultural Development Fund, which previously was closed to them.

The theater of the Shanghai Mass Art Center will provide low-rent space and the government will encourage state media promotion of outstanding private groups, according to Liu.

But after years of government indifference, private groups are taking a wait-and-see attitude. After all, they have been managing for years without a helping hand.

"I have never regretted leaving a state-owned dance company and establishing my own," says dancer Jin. "I wanted freedom to create and now I have it.

"If running a private company is difficult, that's the price we're willing to pay."


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