Mosaic of China Season 01 Episode 26 –The Dance Curator (Sabrina CHEN, Shanghai International Dance Center)
As Programme Director of China's first and only theatre complex specifically dedicated to dance, Sabrina Chen knows a thing or two about reading the China arts scene.
SC: In Argentinian tango, the guy has to always lead the woman. So I have to obey him. Only when we dance.
OF: Welcome to Mosaic of China, a podcast about people who are making their mark in China. I'm your host Oscar Fuchs.
Today's episode is with Sabrina Chen, who is in charge of what gets shown at the Shanghai International Dance Center, which is the first and only complex of theatres specifically dedicated to dance in the whole of China. To the uninitiated - and I definitely include myself in that category - contemporary dance can come across at first as scary and esoteric. But Sabrina dispelled some of those fears for me, and actually since we recorded this interview, I've been to a handful of really good performances. So if she can convince me, then I hope that she can do the same for you, if you're also relatively new to the art form.
Obviously, the performances I saw that I mentioned were not held recently. This episode is going out on March 17 2020. And all venues - like theatres, stadiums, and even most parks - remain shut in Shanghai due to the coronavirus outbreak. But having spent six or so weeks now in lockdown, we are slowly beginning to emerge from self-isolation here. And it's probably only a matter of weeks before they do reopen. There's no complacency here, though. And I think it will personally take me a much longer time to get used to being around larger numbers of people again, especially since I was never a fan of crowds to begin with. My thoughts go out to everyone in other parts of the world now who are just starting to experience what we've been through over here. If you're listening from one of those places, then I hope that the relatively optimistic news from China will at least give you some comfort. It isn't easy, but it will get better again. My advice is of course, keep yourselves informed, but limit your news intake to one short period in the morning and one in the evening. Any more will drive you crazy. If your gym is closed, follow an exercise app, there's really a lot that you can do just using your body weight. And finally, just keep calm and keep happy. Be patient with your loved ones, over-indulge a little in naughty treats, and don't lose your sense of humour.
OF: I'm here with Sabrina Chen. Sabrina is - now let me see if I got this right - you're the programme director of the Shanghai International Dance Center.
OF: Well, the first question I need to ask you is, what is the object that you've brought today?
SC: The object is actually a prop we used in our previous performance.
OF: OK, show me. OK, here it is, she's getting it out of her bag. What? OK.
SC: It's like a piece of garbage.
OF: Can you describe what we're looking at here?
SC: Yeah, it's actually coming from sketch paper. The original size of this paper was the same size as the stage. Because the artist - the dancer - painted at the same time as dancing on the floor. So he painted with his body.
OF: And that's part of the performance? Or this is just what you do to protect the stage?
SC: No, it's part of the performance.
OF: Oh right.
SC: Yes, it's a very special performance. The name is 'Inked'. The performer inked on the paper. So actually, after the performance, lots of audience members came up to ask for it. Because it has already become garbage, we might as well just rip it off and give it to the people who liked it.
SC: The artist's name is Aakash, who is a British Indian, and this was his second time in Shanghai. So he was very happy to see the people appreciate his work so much, even wanting to keep the garbage.
OF: Well, it's awesome. You know, the whole art of dance is so abstract, especially when it comes to what you can bring as an object. So you managed to make something work pretty well. Well, tell me about what you do at the International Dance Center.
SC: OK, I'm the Programme Director of the China International Dance Center Theatre. Because actually, the Shanghai International Dance Center is a geographic concept. In this complex, there are two dance schools, two dance companies, as well as two theatres. So my responsibility is to curate for the two theatres. We have to run about 250 performances a year between the two theatres. So one third of the performances come from international companies, so my job is to invite them to China - to Shanghai - to perform.
OF: OK, so one third is from abroad. How does it work for the two thirds from China?
SC: Out of the two thirds from China, one third of them is actually from the residence companies. Because I just mentioned, we have two dance schools and two dance companies. And they are the Shanghai Ballet and the Shanghai Dance Theatre Company. They are two of the biggest dance companies in China. So they are very stable companies, who will perform in our theatre. And the rest of the performances are from the visiting companies, who come and rent our venue.
OF: So I guess, when I ask you "How did you get into this, as a Programme Director?" my initial assumption would be that you were a dancer. Is that true?
SC: I was a dancer, maybe during Chinese New Year or Christmas in front of my family. But not a professional dancer. I studied journalism at my university. Then I went to the UK to study a postgraduate degree in Hotel Management. So that's nothing to do with dance. However, since I was four, I started learning Chinese dance, and a little bit of ballet. When I was very young, I always had a passion for dance. So after I grew up, after I got a job, I still went to dance lessons, during my leisure time, after work. So for me, dance is always something that's been connected with me very closely. I came back to Shanghai to work as a PR agent in an international PR firm. Still nothing to do with art yet. And suddenly one day, I realised I don't really care about brands or luxury stuff. Maybe it's other people's lifestyle, but for me, my lifestyle is going to the theatre. And this is something I want to do for eight hours a day.
OF: I'm being a little bit forward here. But you're pretty young, right? To be a Programme Director.
SC: Compared to European countries, yeah. I'm 34. When I travel to European countries, I see lots of Programme Directors above 40 or 50. But actually, it's not that young in China, because lots of new theatres were built. For example, in our company the average age of the staff is only 28. So I'm actually, relatively, the old one.
OF: Oh wow. Amazing. And when was it opened?
SC: It was opened in 2016, October.
SC: Yeah. Not that long. However, after being open three years, we have already established our reputation in China, even internationally. Because we are actually the only one complex that caters to dance in China. It's not very usual, even compared to other countries.
OF: So how does dance, then, fit in with the other cultural elements of a city like Shanghai?
SC: I can see it stands quite alone, compared to other communities such as classical music, theatre, musicals. Musicals are getting really big now these days. So dance has a really small community. However, I think because of our unique position, we have brought more and more audience into the community for dance.
OF: Then tell me about this community, what are their tastes? Because dance can be very classic, and dance can be very avant garde, can't it. Like, for me, I'm not somebody who understands much about dance, but I can definitely see those two extremes. Where on that spectrum do you think the tastes levels right now are in Shanghai?
SC: We target contemporary dance mostly. So I cannot say what is the taste of the Chinese or the Shanghai audience, because there are too many of them. Yeah, they're very diverse. But I can say the audience for our theatre, their tastes are very international. Yes. When I travel to the UK, sometimes I find it quite funny, I actually found that the British audience is very similar to the Shanghai audience.
OF: Oh right. Can you explain why?
SC: I don't know why, but from my observation - because I always go to Sadler's Wells, which is the major dance theatre in London - and in terms of programme, we have very similar taste. And all the programmes we present are received very well by the audience. So that means, even though the programme of the company are performed for the first time in Shanghai, the Shanghai audience can get it straightaway. They can recognise, they can distinguish which is a good company and which is not, even without telling them much about it to them. So I think the Shanghai audience are very smart. They're very open minded, they have had a good relationship of cultural exchange with the expat international culture. Yeah.
OF: So you mentioned the strange link between the audience tastes in, at least, Shanghai and London. What about, then, from places outside of the UK? Like other kind of dance groups? What is their particular style? And how does that gel with the Chinese audience?
SC: In continental European countries, for example France or Germany, their artists are very different from British artists. I think the British artists or British companies are quite commercial in some way. Maybe this is why the Shanghai audience are quite similar to the British audience, because Shanghai is such a commercial city. But in France or Germany, you will see actually the artists, sometimes they don't care about the market that much. So they can focus on what they believe, their artistic direction. So some of their programmes are extremely avant garde, cannot be understood at all. Yeah.
OF: Interesting. And have you had any of those shows at least approaching that level of avant garde in Shanghai? What was your experience there?
SC: Yes, because we have two theatres: one Grand Theatre, one Experimental Theatre. The Grand Theatre has 1,000 seats. So in that theatre, we usually programme performances that's not completely commercial, but at least can be accessed by the people easily. But in the Experimental Theatre, we will programme some avant garde companies. For example, last year we had a solo show from a Japanese company, where the artist was standing in the centre of the stage for an hour, and didn't move at all. So all the dance movements were completed in that one spot in the centre of the stage.
OF: OK. Well, this is where you lose me as an audience. But I'm sure there are people out there who do appreciate that.
SC: Actually we do have this concern. Because the theatre has just been opened. And contemporary dance is still a quite new form of art for the Chinese audience. And it's early stages in developing the audience. We don't want to scare them away. That's why when we programme, we still need to think about what can be accepted by the Chinese audience. And, "Is there anything else we can add, to educate them, to broaden their view, so they can accept more forms of art?" But I think the speed of growth is very fast in China, because a very big difference between the Chinese audience and the European audience is actually that in the European theatres, you see lots of older generation people in the audience; however, in Shanghai the audience that comes to see the performances in our theatre are very young, they are under 35. And lots of younger kids, they come with their parents. So these people, they're very open-minded. So for them, even though it's maybe a slightly avant garde show, they will not say "OK, it's not my cup of tea." They would try to think about it like "Is this something that I haven't seen before? I didn't enjoy it that much, is it because I didn't know it that well? So I will maybe try something more, something else." So I think that the Shanghai audience are very open.
OF: Well, that's a result then. So there you go, you have these programmes, but you're the one who has to curate this.
OF: Like, with your background in journalism and hotels and maybe PR, how has that helped you in your job?
SC: I think it helps a lot. Maybe because working in theatre is about managing people. It's about making networks. And that's exactly the same as journalism or PR. PR is about anticipating your target market. Marketing is very important. How we describe the programme, which part of the programme is the most attractive for the audience, and how we deliver the message to the audience. Because the performance only lasts for two days, usually only two shows. So I think the journalism background makes me more sensitive about my audience.
OF: Interesting. What about the feedback afterwards? I guess there are two groups, one would be the very new audience, and the other would be maybe the people who would consider themselves experts.
SC: You know, the interesting thing is, I don't think the experts can sometimes see clearly about the performance. Because they've learned the techniques, sometimes they frame themselves in a certain way. They have a stereotype from what they've learned, they have a definition of what dance is. However, sometimes with the ordinary audience, they don't have this boundary, this stereotype. For me, I don't see actually that the expert audience are superior to the ordinary audience. For contemporary dance, it's not an examination. So the most common questions we got from our audience is "What's it about? What do you want to say?" And our artists will always respond "What do you see?" Of course, they will talk about why they created this programme, what's their inspiration from. But the most important thing is, they will encourage our audience to think their own way, not to just seek a standard answer.
OF: And we're talking a lot about Shanghai. What about the rest of China? Do you see a big difference between Shanghai and other parts?
SC: In terms of contemporary dance, I think yes. Shanghai audiences are more open minded, as I said many times. Sometimes it's more difficult to market a contemporary dance company in other cities. That's why Shanghai is the first market, they have to test, to help develop their reputation in other areas of China. So I think the audience in Shanghai are very lucky.
OF: And how about now, are you are you doing any dance in your own free time?
SC: Yes. Over the last few years, I learned many types of dance: belly dance, jazz dance, contemporary dance, ballet, Chinese classical dance, folk dance. But recently, I realised I want to keep doing Argentinian tango.
OF: Oh right.
SC: At my age, I want to do something more elegant.
OF: Nice. So you're doing classes?
SC: Yes, I'm doing classes every every week.
OF: Oh wow.
SC: And I did Argentinian tango with my husband during my wedding. It was our first dance.
OF: And so, is he into it? Or he just did it because you are?
SC: Well, I think he started it because we need to do the first dance. But afterwards, he realised he wants to keep doing it. I think the reason why is because in Argentinian tango, the guy has to always lead the woman. So I have to obey him. Only when we dance.
OF: I love it. I'm not gonna ask any more questions about your marriage. Well, thank you so much, Sabrina. That was really, really interesting.
SC: Thank you so much.
OF: Well, let's move on to Part 2.
OF: Part 2 is our ten quick questions. So I will not delay any further and just jump straight in. Question 1, what is your favourite China-related fact?
SC: The cultural diversity. Because China is so big. And when you travel to Beijing, you realise the city is completely different from Shanghai. Some people like it, some people hate it. For me, I really enjoy this diversity. And this is the reason why I decided to come back to China after my studies, because I found so many interesting things going on in this country.
OF: Right. I think it's it's more like a continent than a country, right?
OF: Do you have a favourite word or phrase in Chinese?
SC: Yes, recently, I have a favourite colloquial word in Chinese called 吸猫 [xīmāo]. 吸 [xī] means 'suck', 猫 [māo] is 'cat'. Actually, you know, 吸猫 [xīmāo] is a word coming from… taking drugs. Because cats are so adorable, and adored by so many young people in China. So sometimes we feel like we are addicted to them.
SC: Myself, I'm actually a cat person. I have two cats. And I'm addicted to them. In our company, we adopted a cat from the rooftop of our theatre. So everyone is addicted to the cat. So I like the word 吸猫 [xīmāo].
OF: Right. So it's like taking drugs, but the drug is a cat.
OF: What's the Chinese for 'toxoplasmosis'?
SC: I'm sorry?
OF: Yeah, that's a long word. I'll tell you later. What is your favourite destination within China?
SC: The south west of China, where the pandas are.
OF: Right. If you left China, what would you miss the most, and what would you miss the least?
SC: I would miss hot pot the most.
SC: Miss least, the traffic.
OF: Simply said. Is there anything that still surprises you about life here in China?
SC: The square dance ladies. Every time we invite an international company to Shanghai, they will ask me "Where can we see the square dance ladies?" Because they want to join them. Sometimes I will go to see the square dance with the artists. And they found out, the square dances are so difficult, even for professional dancers. And it's amazing to see so many old ladies still enthusiastic about dance so much, every day after work. My mother in law is one of them. Actually, when we just opened the theatre, we had to make a promotional video of the theatre. So in the video, we invited a group of square dance ladies. And I was observing them while they were making the video. As soon as they started dancing, everyone was so happy. You know, I was very moved by the scene. So even though sometimes they make a noise in the park, in the public space, I think it's really a good lifestyle for old people.
OF: Well said. In case anyone out there has never seen this, it's almost every town square where there's an empty space, you're walking home from work - because it's normally at that after work time - and you'll pass two or three groups. And sometimes their music will be clashing with each other, because they're too close to each other. But I also love it. What is your favourite place to go out, to eat, to drink, to hang out?
SC: Well if you put me into a fashionable place, I will still enjoy it. But maybe I would not proactively choose to go. Maybe it's because I grew up in Shanghai, I've seen too many of them. For me, I feel a little bit fed up with it. Yeah, so that's why I like to go to places that are more cosy. Ah, maybe the supermarket! You know 盒马鲜生 [Hémǎ Xiānshēng]?
OF: What's that? 盒马先生 [Hémǎ Xiānshēng], so Mr. Hémǎ?
SC: Er… yes, yes? It's magic. So when you order seafood, actually they will put it in a bag and they will hang the bag on a track. So it's like an automatic system, you can receive your goods. It's really funny.
OF: OK, what is your favourite WeChat sticker?
SC: くまモン [Kumamon] rolling on the floor.
OF: OK, let's see this. You've just sent it to me, right?
OF: OK, so I know this guy from LINE, right?
OF: It's growing on me. I've seen it through a couple of loops now, and I'm laughing. OK. I'm a fan. I'm gonna use that one. What is your go-to song to sing at KTV?
SC: Ah, Bohemian Rhapsody.
OF: Oh wow, really?
SC: One of the reasons I like this song very much is because it's similar to a musical.
SC: And it's a good song to break the ice.
OF: For sure. And are you into musicals as well, are you?
SC: Yeah, because I used to work in a musical company too.
OF: Oh, which one was that?
SC: United Asia. That is the one that introduced the Chinese version of Mamma Mia and Cats in China.
OF: Yeah right. OK, there's a whole other podcast there, but we have to move on. Finally, what other China-related media or sources of information do you use?
SC: I kind of rely on everything, WeChat, 微博 [Wēibó], official or unofficial media, international websites as well.
OF: Very good. Well, thanks so much, Sabrina. You know that I only have one more question left. And that is, out of everyone else who you know in China, who do you think I should interview next?
SC: I think you should interview Michelle Qu, who is a very interesting lady. She is doing improvisational comedy.
OF: Mmm. In English or in Chinese?
SC: Both. Mainly in Chinese, but I know she was doing it in English too.
OF: Wow. Amazing. I can't wait to meet Michelle. Well, thanks so much, Sabrina.
SC: Thank you.
OF: Sabrina's story is one which I find very inspiring. She could have been somebody who had spent her whole career in dance. But personally, I've always thought that the most well-rounded experts are people who have experiences from multiple disciplines. With Sabrina, her background in journalism, hospitality, and PR - together with her lifelong passion for dance - are for me the exact reasons why she is a great fit for the role she has.
Let's look at the images that I've posted on social media this week. Please check out @mosaicofchina_* on Instagram or @mosaicofchina on Facebook, or join the community on WeChat by adding me on my ID: mosaicofchina.* This week there is Sabrina with her object, the piece of inked paper; there's her favourite WeChat sticker; there are images depicting the amazing phrase 吸猫 [xīmāo], one of which I borrowed from Josh at the Mandarin Slang Guide, or 'MSG' podcast. He did a recent episode about Chinese wordplay, so definitely check that out if you're into your Mandarin. Oh, I also posted a video of that fish being magically delivered at the 盒马鲜生 [Hémǎ Xiānshēng] supermarket. And 盒马鲜生 [Hémǎ Xiānshēng] actually means 'Hémǎ Fresh', not 'Mr. Hémǎ'. The two different 'Xiānshēng's both have exactly the same tone. There is a photo of Sabrina and her husband doing the Argentinian tango at her wedding. It looks annoyingly cool. So to offset the cool, there's also some photos of ladies doing the town square dancing. And Sabrina's favourite China-related fact was about the cultural diversity across China. So I was wondering what image to post to reflect this. And then I remembered that there had been an app that was released a few months ago to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, which allowed you to superimpose on a photo of your face the traditional costumes of all the minority groups of China. So if you want to see 24 weirdly filtered, culturally appropriated versions of me in different national costumes, it's quite something.
Mosaic of China is me Oscar Fuchs, artwork by Denny Newell, and extra support from Milo de Prieto and Alston Gong. Stay healthy and stay happy everyone, and I will be back next week.
SC: My parents were a little bit concerned about what I was doing. Once I got this job, they suddenly changed their attitude, and they would speak to their relatives like "Yeah, we encouraged her to do whatever she likes to do". You know, "We never stopped her doing anything she wanted to do.
SC: Typical Chinese parents.
OF: If it worked out well, then they take credit, right?
*Different WeChat and Instagram handles were mentioned in the original recording. These IDs are now obsolete, and the updated details have been substituted.
Oscar Fuchs was the Co-Founder and Managing Director of a global executive search firm dedicated to the Human Resources profession. He was born in the UK and has lived in Asia for 18 years, including 3 years in Hong Kong SAR, and 7 years in mainland China. In 2019 he sold his company, and launched Mosaic of China.