Sunday, August 24, 2008

Cultural Captialism: Modern Dance Festival in Beijing

Last week, my friend and fellow Columbia Alum, Gigi, invited me to a modern dance performance in Beijing. I personally jumped at the opportunity since it was almost 2 years since I had been to a dance performance. As we all already know, Shenzhen is lacking in culture.

As Gigi reminded me in a text message: "Modern dance is supposed to play with the idea of free association of body movements and break the rules of traditional aesthetic styles"....blah blah.

The JK booking Dance Festival Beijing 2008 was held at the Nine Theaters in Chaoyang District. had a total of 8 total numbers with 5 different groups from both the US and China. The US participants were Odyssey Dance Theatre from Salt Lake City and Kim Robards Dance from Denver. Their Chinese counterparts included the Beijing Modern Dance Company and choreographers from the National Ballet of China and TAO Studio,

The dance performance was very impressive. The Chinese performances were displayed in interesting cultural costumes and backgrounds. The American performances were mostly in a traditional western context. The Odyssey Dance Theatre even performed "The Factory", a hip hop piece (I was at one point brought onto the stage and proceeded to dance with the performers for a few minutes). 2 of their dancers were even finalists on the American show, So You Think You Can Dance.

At the end of the performance, Gigi and I stayed for the discussion with the various directors. Most people in the audience asked about specific pieces that they enjoyed. What was the inspiration for it?

As a relative novice in art and dance, my question for the directors reflected on a overall view of the development of modern dance in China as well as how it felt have this kind of cross cultural collaboration.

All of the directors responded positively. They discussed the honor of being able to perform together with Chinese groups and the amazing expansion of modern dance and art in China in the past few years. They also talked about collaboration and learning from each other.

The most interesting comment came from Director Derryl Yeager from the Odyssey Dance Theatre. He discussed his excitement for his dance company and the future possibilities for more traveling tours and performances in China. He enthusiastically wanted to do more of these performance festivals in China.

By spending so much time in Shenzhen and Guangdong province, my primary experience has been associated with trading goods and services. This usually revolves around using cost advantages in one place to arbitrage in another. With my education company, it involves giving students the opportunity to experience another place through travel - almost a trading company dealing in people, instead of physical things.

At no point did I ever consider the idea of trading in culture or "cultural capitalism." All of the American directors had the expressed goal of promoting their own group in China. Just as the NBA and the MLB are heavily investing in China to further expand their market, or multinational corporations expanding their operations in China to expand their own market, these dance companies are in effect doing the same. They are using their time and energy to promote their own art.

These dance companies are also proceeding in a similar way as their business counterparts did. To begin tapping into the Chinese market, western corporations began by established joint ventures with Chinese counterparts. This was not only the only way they could get in at the time, but it was the best way to understand how to navigate China. This is almost what this festival was.

Also just as corporations passed on certain technical aspects or management ideas to their Chinese partners, so did the American dance groups show off their techniques and creative intensions.

What is most interesting is that it seems that there are truly a huge number of people who are interested in China's potential other than for business. Collaboration in academics, art, law, sport, society, culture and other areas are just as important as for pure business.

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