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Arts festival closes with a touch of Cuban flair

By ZHANG KUN in Shanghai | China Daily USA | Updated: 2018-11-28 02:27
A scene from Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s performance of Don Quixote at the Shanghai Grand Theatre. photo by Nancy Reyes / for China Daily

Following years of contact and multiple invitations, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba's classic production Don Quixote finally graces the city

The 20th China Shanghai International Arts Festival (CSIAF) came to a close on Nov 22 following the Ballet Nacional de Cuba's performance of Don Quixote at the Shanghai Grand Theatre.

This year's festival, which kicked off on Oct 19, consisted of 45 plays and operas, 25 of which were from abroad. Aside from theater shows, artists presented more than 300 public performances and educational programs. With the help of online streaming platforms, more than 5 million people watched the shows or participated in the CSIAF this year, according to the organizers.

This year, the festival opened with a new symphony production Hidden Tapestries – Myths of Creation by Chinese composer Ye Xiaogang. As such, organizers decided to close the show with a well-established classic like Don Quixote, said Wang Jun, president for the center of CSIAF.

This was the first time the prestigious ballet company from Cuba visited Shanghai, and also the first time it was staging Don Quixote in China. A well-established modern classic, this production was created in 1988 by legendary dancer and choreographer Alicia Alonso who is the founder of the dance troupe.

Alonso, who used to be one of the most prominent ballerinas in Cuba, founded her own ballet company in 1948 which later became the Ballet Nacional de Cuba in 1955. Despite having undergone several eye surgeries, Alonso continued dancing till she was in her 70s, guiding the company to global acclaim. The 98-year-old was not present at the CSIAF due to her health condition.

Chinese dancer and choreographer Yang Liping’s production Rite of Spring. photo by Zu Zhongren / for China Daily

According to Wang, it took years of building a relationship and multiple invitations to bring the Ballet Nacional de Cuba to the festival. Such was the importance of this performance that the festival was even extended by a few days so that Don Quixote could be performed as the closing act.

Don Quixote was among a series of heavy-weight productions that made their China debut at the CSIAF. Others included All Balanchine by The New York City Ballet. The Lucerne Festival Orchestra also celebrated its Shanghai debut at the festival, presenting five concerts throughout a week, including an outdoor show at the Gongqing Forestry Park.

The fact that a growing number of companies have chosen Shanghai as the place to debut their productions reflects the city's status as a cultural destination in the region. Ye Chenliang wrote in Shanghai-based Wenhui Daily that this "marks Shanghai's movement toward a leading city in Asia's performing art scene, and eventually symbolizes the improvement of Shanghai".

Wang said that the festival has sparked controversy over the past few years by choosing to introduce experimental artists and works to the city that audiences have found difficult to understand. But this was all part of the plan.

"It is our mission to educate the public and introduce to them the latest achievements of the international art scene — we want to lead the audience instead of following their preference," she said.

Chinese American choreographer Shen Wei was one of those the CSIAF introduced to the city. In 2016, just two years after he and his company were introduced to the city, Shen's dance creation Map and Near the Terrace won high praise from critics and the public. Shen, who was schooled in Chinese ink painting, traditional Chinese opera and contemporary dance, was again present at this year's CSIAF, presenting a solo exhibition of visual art at the Power Station Shanghai.

A scene from George Balanchine’s Serenade by the New York City Ballet. photo by Paul Kolnik / for China Daily

Presently based in New York, the award-winning choreographer first set up his dance company Shen Wei Dance Arts in 2000. His choreography works are developed based on natural body development, a dance technique he created. His first project in China was Painting Scroll, a dance commissioned for the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008.

Another prominent figure who debuted her latest creation at the CSIAF was famous Chinese choreographer Yang Liping. Featuring a combination of Stravinsky's music with oriental colors, Yang's Rite of Spring was a highly anticipated performance that drew a slew of industry insiders from abroad.

For example, Jonathan Holloway, director of the Melbourne Art Festival, made a one-day visit to Shanghai just to watch the show. The production, jointly commissioned by Sadler's Wells Theatre in London and the CSIAF, embarked on an international tour right after its premiere at the CSIAF on Oct 22. Holloway caught his first glimpse of the production at the performing arts fair, an integrated part of the CSIAF last year, when a 15-minute episode was presented for the ongoing production.

This year, the trade fair of CSIAF, which is an integrated part of the festival, hosted 460 institutions and groups from 53 countries and regions. A total of 220 projects from China at the fair made potential deals to perform overseas, while 228 productions from abroad signed intended contracts to tour China.

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