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Making the case
Publication Date : 16-11-2012
Choreographer Shen Wei did not expect his two shows at the National Centre for the Performing Arts next week to have sold only 40 per cent of the seats.
"Wherever we performed, the tickets would be sold out before we arrive," Shen says at the NCPA's cafe. "I'm OK, but a bit hesitant on how to tell my dancers that they will see empty seats. I've always told them how great Chinese arts and culture is so that they were really looking forward to this trip. Anyway, they just arrived and have headed to the Great Wall."
When Shen left China in January 1995 to New York, contemporary dance was avant-garde in the country. Seventeen years later, dance still struggles to draw crowds.
"People say they don't understand contemporary dance. In their minds, it means barefoot dancers running on the stage hysterically," he says.
He is partly right. Modern dance is not everyone's cup of tea, but in the ongoing NCPA Dance Festival, only Cloud Gate and Yang Liping sold out - and Yang had to add one more show.
Lin Hwai-min's Cloud Gate has performed in Beijing and Shanghai several times in the past decade, while 54-year-old dancer Yang became an overnight sensation for her singular pose impersonating the peacock during the 1986 CCTV Spring Festival Gala.
"Most audiences only buy what they know. Stuttgart Ballet's The Lady of the Camellias sells well but Sylvie Guillem's Marguerite and Armand does not. They know about the novel The Lady of the Camellias but don't know the heroine and the hero's names are Marguerite and Armand," says NCPA's Simona Wang, who coordinates the dance events.
In this sense, Shen is a challenging case. His big selling point: He choreographed the opening segment Scroll at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, but most people only connect that ceremony with Zhang Yimou.
Contemporary dance does not get the mainstream audience's attention.
Before the Beijing Games, Shen had enjoyed fame in the United States and Europe. The Washington Times hailed him as "one of the great artists of our time". A New York Times review said, "If there is something to write home about in the dance world, it is the startlingly imaginative work of the Chinese-born choreographer Shen Wei" and selected his shows as "Best Performance of the Year" in 2001 and 2003.
In 2006, composer Tan Dun and director Zhang Yimou were staging The First Emperor at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Tan introduced Shen to Zhang, but as Shen was doing his Peking Opera piece The Second Visit to the Empress, he could not join the other production.
One year later, Cai Guoqiang, who created the fireworks for the Olympic Opening Ceremony, introduced him to Zhang again.
Shen did not miss the opportunity this time.
"As a Chinese abroad, I really want to do something to show our ability to the world," he says. "Whenever something bad happens in China, some foreign friends would come to me as if I have something to do with it.
"And 'made in China' means low-quality products. So I want to do something good."
After the Olympic Games, theatres and agencies in China were eager to book Shen. But his schedule is set two years in advance.
"I would put China as top priority now. I know many world-leading contemporary dance companies have been here and more young audiences enjoy modern dance," he says.
"I know it takes time for people to accept modern dance. Even in the West, it was the same at the beginning."
His Shen Wei Dance Arts has Chinese-speaking staff and even the one foreign member has started to learn Chinese.
This is the first time Shen brings his signature works home since he left in 1995. His company will perform Rite of Spring (2003) and Near The Terrace (2000).
"Both are challenging pieces for the audience. I believe artists have the responsibility to inspire people, to improve people's thinking or taste. It's not entertaining. Entertainment pleases you and gives you what you want. Art gives you what you need but you may just not be aware of it," he says.
Educating audiences and explaining the situation to his dancers are just two things among the many he has to do in China.
After the interview, Shen will meet a costume designer to change the female dancers' costume in Near the Terrace. The original version features women dancer dressed as half-naked ancient Greek sculptures. NCPA advised him to add something to cover the chest.
"They say the dress can be thin and look transparent but cannot let the audience assume you are naked," Shen shrugs.