THE RISE OF CHINA’S ARTS SCENE
Chinese artists are leaving an ever growing footprint on the world stage, with the China Shanghai International Arts Festival playing a vital role in this growth
This year’s Oct 12 to Nov 15 China Shanghai International Arts Festival (CSIAF) features a greater representation of Chinese artists and had for the first time opened with a Chinese folk concert.
Titled New Oriental, the folk performance by the Shanghai Folk Music Troupe is aimed at promoting Chinese culture and telling stories from China, said Wang Jun, president of the center for CSIAF.
Since its founding 17 years ago, the CSIAF has been an arts extravaganza that celebrates theater, music and other performing arts by talents from home and abroad. This year’s edition comprises 50 productions, with 22 coming from the Chinese mainland and 28 from foreign countries.
“We have been dedicated to introducing outstanding foreign art and productions to audiences in Shanghai, and we are equally determined to promote China’s own creativity to the rest of the world,” said Wang.
Folk music, according to director of the troupe Luo Xiaoci, reflects the history, aesthetics and philosophical ideas of a nation. In order to feature a contemporary touch, Luo had invited a group of foreign composers, stage designers and dancers. Also among the foreign guests was Belgian cellist Sebastien Walnier who played alongside Chinese erhu star Ma Xiaohui.
The musical New Oriental featured one of the oldest music instruments in China, a flute made of a bone, dating back 8,000 years, as well as elements of calligraphy, dance and Chinese opera. Gao Shaoqing’s erhu performance of The Flight of Bumblebee ranked as one of the highlights of the musical.
Apart from folk music, Kunqu opera also took the spotlight with I, Hamlet, a Chinese opera rendition of the Shakespearean classic. Chinese artist Zhang Jun, who had masterfully switched the settings to ancient China, performs all the various roles in this one-man show, singing in Chinese and English.
Sponsored by CSIAF, I, Hamlet is a part of the center’s Rising Artists Works (RAW) project that has since its inception in 2012 commissioned 50 original productions from young, up-and-coming artists.
“The RAW project is an incubator of original art and young talents, and a platform introducing China’s outstanding shows to the world,” said Wang.
Last year, Maleonn Ma, a contemporary artist, produced an original puppet show titled Pappa’s Time Machine thanks to a sponsorship from the RAW project.
Ma started his career as an installation and photography artist. A few years ago, he became interested in building puppets using recycled metals, machinery and other materials. Inspired by the true story between himself and his father who is suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, Ma created a play about love, loss and memories.
“The figures and imagery are so original that it was almost as if he re-invented puppetry,” said Kelly Wang, president of Li’an Culture Development Co. Ltd, the producer of the show.
Earlier this year at the annual congress of ISPA (International Society for Performing Arts) in New York, Pappa’s Time Machine was part of the Pitch New Work session, in which 10 submissions are selected to be pitched to more than 400 performing arts professionals from more than 50 countries. The success of the puppet show has continued at this year’s performing art fair that is part of the CSIAF when it was invited to participate in several international art festivals.
This year, Ma Haiping, an electronic music artist who is also supported by RAW, has created his first theater production Folding City, an adaptation of the Hugo Award-winning science fiction book Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang.
The 35-year-old self-confessed die-hard science fiction fan had in the past few years composed and produced music for various theater productions before coming up with the idea to create one.
His Folding City production features four LED screens that present a future city in three dimensions, with laser projection representing the protagonist’s travels between these dimensions. Apart from the electronic music that is arranged by Ma himself, the production also includes two musicians who perform live.
There have already been three successful performances of Folding City at the Shanghai Theater Academy and the production has also gone on a tour in Beijing. Ma now hopes to take the show to more cities. Encouraged by the positive response from both professionals and the public, he is looking for new science fiction works for theater adaptation.
“Sci-fi and electronic music have been in China for some time, albeit as a marginal culture that is often misunderstood and misinterpreted,” he said.
“Folding City is an experiment and I’m glad to observe that more people have begun to realize the value of science fiction and electronic music. This has helped pushed it from a marginal art form to a pioneering position.”
In an unprecedented move, RAW this year commissioned Bella Tong, a director and playwriter from Shanghai Theater Academy, to work with New Zealand design and theater studio Storybox to create a production titled Duality.
This immersive theater experience is driven by a smart phone application and audiences — no more than a dozen of them for each performance — are gathered not at a theater but a designated meeting point where everyone is given a mobile phone.
Audiences then receive voice messages and learn about the background of the story before embarking on a trip in search of a young woman who disappears during the live broadcast.
The play utilizes phone calls, WeChat discussions and pop-up news alerts to engage the audiences, which play the role of a character in the story. Audiences also get to follow the actors around, visiting backstage dressing rooms, a student dormitory as well as a dark staircase landing.
“Immersive theater is new, but it has to start somewhere,” said Tong about this novel theater experience.
Jonathan Mandell, a theater critic from New York, said during the CSIAF that immersive theater has been growing in profile all around the world as it allows audiences to create their own narrative, interact with the actors and be exposed to an interactive situation where they can experience the play not only through hearing and seeing, but also smelling and even tasting.
Mandell cited Sleep No More, an immersive play by Punchdrunk Company from Britain, as well as Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, as good examples. The two productions take place in an abandoned building and a Russian tea room respectively.
Sleep No More, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, will be coming to Shanghai on November and will take place in a building just off Nanjing Road West, behind the Majestic Theater.
Chen Qiang, who has introduced virtual reality and augmented reality technologies to the performing art fair during CSIAF, said that while such new modes of theater can at times obstruct the storytelling process, they at the same time bring infinite new possibilities and help level the playing field.
“In the past, Chinese theater art was said to be languishing behind mature markets such as Broadway in New York, but now Chinese artists are being presented with the same opportunity to create masterpieces with new technologies such as virtual and augmented reality,” said Chen.
The steady rise of Chinese theater and music performances can be attributed to the continual efforts of CSIAF, said Rudolf Tang, founder of a Shanghai-based performing arts think tank “Klassikom”.
Earlier this year, Tang joined the China National Opera and Dance Drama Theater on their tour of Greece where they performed during a gala concert featuring original Chinese composition and instruments.
During the conclusion of the show, the Chinese musicians played a popular European piece Never on Sunday using the Chinese pipa instead of the bouzouki, a Greek instrument, and “the audiences loved it” according to Tang.
“When China tries to promote its culture on the international stage, we should find common interests and inspire communications instead of force-feeding it to others,” he added.
Tang also noted that an increasing number of Chinese musicians are winning international prizes, and reminded people that Chinese conductors are becoming very revered on the global music stage.
“Conductors are at the top of the food chain in the music industry. They have great influence in the promotion of Chinese music, and this gives China a great advantage,” said Tang.
This year's CSIAF features performances by 22 domestic groups and 28 international ones.