The coronavirus has been the villain on the performing arts stage for three years, but the show must go on even as it struggles to regain the limelight.
An estimated 9,000 performances were canceled in China in the first three months of this year alone, according to the China Association of Performing Arts. Theaters in Shanghai suspended operations from March to June, regional COVID outbreaks have disrupted shows and many planned overseas productions have been thwarted by travel restrictions.
Due to irregular sources of income, the road to recovery was arduous.
However, as Einstein once famously said, “In the midst of adversity there is great opportunity.” And lest there be any doubt as to the wisdom of those words, here are a few examples of creative concepts that promise brighter times.
Impulse Dance Theatre
Wang Hao’s Impulse Dance Theater was established last summer after the choreographer shared with fellow dancers his dream of starting an independent dance company. They welcomed the idea and encouraged him.
Wang, 38, is currently a choreographer and teacher at Shanghai Ballet and a former teacher at Shanghai Theater Academy.
Early in her career, Wang was a leading dancer with the Guangzhou Ballet, performed with the Singapore Dance Theater and was a soloist with the Victor Ullate Ballet Comunidad de Madrid.
“Our troupe consists of eight Shanghai-based dancers, and some of us are long-time friends,” Wang told Shanghai Daily. “We have our own jobs, mostly as dancers and teachers. Despite the disruptions to work and life caused by the pandemic, our passion for dancing remains the same. We feel the urge to express ourselves by creating our own dance productions.”
Impulse’s debut work The Game – Falling into Darkness made its Shanghai debut at the Shanghai International Dance Theater earlier this month.
Wang described it as a ballet inspired by the popular board game Werewolf Kills. In the game, one player is “killed” each round before the survivors vote on who the werewolf is. Those with special identities – including werewolf, seer, and witch – must disguise themselves to survive.
In the show, eight dancers are given dual identities. Social issues such as cyber violence, the wealth gap and extramarital affairs are woven into the performance.
“We chose a trendy game as the theme to make the dance more attractive to the audience,” said Wang. “There’s a lot of tension and drama, as well as social issues … I was eager to include so many elements, but the future direction of the troupe is to include more stage acting.”
Impulse Dance Theater members train and rehearse in their free time, often working from 9pm until after midnight.
“We are motivated by our interest and passion for dance,” said Fu Yiyang, a dancer with the Hong Kong Ballet.
Travel restrictions disrupted Fu’s performance schedule, so she finally decided to stay in Shanghai for the time being.
“There is no hierarchy among the members of Impulse Dance Theatre,” she said. “We bring ideas and exchange them freely and follow our heart to create dance works.”
According to Wang, most independent dance companies around the world are facing financial difficulties. He has relied on his own savings and the support of a few dance venues to keep his troupe going.
“Our goal isn’t to make money, it’s to create a platform for dedicated dancers, especially those who don’t have a steady job for now,” he said. “I’m sending an invitation here: You are cordially invited to join the impulse!”
Balladeers of the Shanghai Culture Square
Ballad singers Zhang Weiwei and Guo Long held a concert at Shanghai Culture Square on November 8 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the birth of their legendary album Baiyin Hotel.
It was the first time that Culture Square, a venue best known for staging international musicals, freed its stage for a ballad concert. This was followed by a limit of 75 percent seating capacity; Tickets sold out within minutes.
Ma Yue / SHINE
It was Zhang and Guo’s first time performing in a theater hall after a series of performances at clubs or open-air music festivals.
“When performing in a live house, communication, interaction and even physical contact between performers and audience are important,” Zhang said. “Of all musical genres, the ballad is probably the one that best suits the theatrical setting.”
He explained: “Narrative, or the ability to tell stories, is the most important quality of the ballad. Compared to other musical genres, the ballad is more like a drama, and a theatrical stage can expand its narrative power.”
Originally from Gansu Province, Zhang and Guo began their musical collaboration at the relatively late age of 35. During the concert in Shanghai, they performed songs from the album “Baiyin Hotel”, which is based on stories from their hometown and can be performed with guitar and accordion accompaniment.
The duo also performed songs from a new album they are currently working on, featuring an orchestra, electronic music and a synthesizer.
“Electronic music and the synthesizer add a different tone,” Zhang said. “I use them to explore the narrative function of a ballad.”
Fei Yuanhong, deputy general manager of Shanghai Culture Square, praised the quality of the ballad singers’ performance.
“Ballads may not attract as many followers as pop songs, but the ballad is rooted in nature,” Fei said. “The sincerity of ballads is valuable. Ballad players can sing to our hearts in this fast-moving era.”
Like most theatres, Culture Square has been looking for ways to lure theatergoers back from overseas in the absence of foreign troupes and popular stage productions.
“The venue will be open to more genres and innovative stage productions as long as the works are of high quality,” Fei said.
From the Edinburgh Fringe Showcase to a Chinese chamber orchestra
For Zhao Yichen, a former Edinburgh Fringe Showcase organizer, the impact of the pandemic has been fatal.
He was employed as a performance agent to bring foreign productions to China until the coronavirus outbreak. Foreign programs have been suspended and domestic events such as the Xintiandi Performing Arts Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe Showcase have been cancelled.
“There has been very little work in the past three years,” Zhao told Shanghai Daily. “After the two-month lockdown in Shanghai, I finally decided to change jobs.”
Zhao studied arts management at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and worked for a conference and exhibition company before his interest in the performing arts led him to become a performance agent.
Zhao worked as a part-time sports photographer last summer before taking the job of operations director of the Xinyi Chinese Chamber Orchestra, a 10-piece troupe supporting the Shanghai No. 1 National Musical Instruments Factory.
Members of the Xinyi Orchestra perform at some of the factory’s promotional activities and also provide quality control for new instruments manufactured at the site.
Zhao’s job is to look for commercial opportunities for the orchestra to increase the musicians’ income.
“My previous work experience, including my knowledge of the theater and performance market, has helped me a lot in this new job,” Zhao said.
Zhao used his photography skills and opened a social media account for the orchestra to post interesting sidelights from rehearsals.
“My past experience has taught me how important branding is to a force,” he said. “Our performers are professional, but the Xinyi Orchestra has kept a relatively low profile. My job is to sharpen this profile.”
One of Zhao’s former colleagues, Xu Peiyao, also left the Performance Agent Company and joined the team at the newly opened Theater Young.
Theater Young, a new performing arts venue in Yangpu District, caters to a young audience with creative performances by avant-garde artists and creators.
“We feature independent troupes and artists who can deliver high-quality works and face financial burdens related to the pandemic,” Xu told Shanghai Daily.
Zhao said the theater gives artists a stage.
“Otherwise many of them would give up their ambitions for lack of income,” he added. “This is a difficult time for performing artists. We all recognize the value of what we want to do. We just have to stick to it.”