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The performing arts sector is struggling to stay afloat, as some companies disband, and others find that online streaming is no substitute for a real audience

By Xu Ming , Ni Wei Updated Aug.1

The cast of the Sound of Yunnan, a percussion dance program led by Chinese artist Yang Liping perform on stage in their purpose-built theater in Kunming, Yunnan Province

Tao Dance Theater, an independent contemporary dance company, shocked its fans when it announced on April 28 it was disbanding after 14 years. The decision came out of nowhere, as the troupe was busy preparing for a six-day show to be performed in Beijing over the May Day holidays. The day before, Tao Ye, founder of the Beijing-based company, delayed an interview with NewsChina as his dancers were racing against time rehearsing for the show. 
But the announcement of new Covid control measures in the Chinese capital meant the show was called off on April 28. In the announcement published on its WeChat public account, the troupe explained that it had been struggling to keep its head above water in the past two pandemic-troubled years. Relying on ticket revenue from live performances, the closure of all live venues in Beijing delivered the final blow.  

The same day, Yunnan Imaging team, a group of non-professional performers led by famed Chinese dancer Yang Liping, released a video announcing the company was already disbanded. “For the past two years, we’ve been holding on. I don’t want to give up. But the reality of the pandemic has been so cruel. Without a stage, we couldn’t keep going,” Yang, who has been dancing for 51 years, said as she choked back tears in the 18-minute video. Her company had performed 7,000 shows over 19 years. 
The day after the two companies disbanded was International Dance Day. UNESCO posted on Weibo about the loss, noting that the pandemic has affected the whole cultural community and caused a deterioration in the environment for artistic creators.  

The news shook the performance sector, even though the struggles of the last two years meant it did not come out of the blue. 

Last Straw
The past two years have been tough for privately run dance companies, which have less support than those with government backing. Established in 2008 by Tao Ye, Duan Ni and Wang Hao, Tao Dance Theater is one of the few dance troupes that relies on performances for revenue. The avant-garde troupe was popular overseas, sometimes giving 40 international performances a year. It had a much bigger audience base overseas than in China. Some 90 percent of their performances were abroad, although Tao said he tried to change that.  

When Covid-19 spread across the globe in 2020, their schedule was disrupted. Overseas shows were postponed or canceled, cutting off their primary source of income. They started touring Chinese cities in 2020 and became more popular, so they made creative adjustments to cater to domestic audiences.  

But while Covid waves constantly ebbed and resurged, revenue was unpredictable. The company cared most about artistic vision, and had not engaged in more commercial activities such as selling merchandise or taking part in variety shows to promote themselves. To make ends meet, they tried providing dance lessons and establishing a clothing brand. Still, by the end of 2021, the troupe was heavily in debt.  

The planned six-day performance at the Taihu Stage Art Center, an offshoot of the National Center for Performing Arts in Beijing’s Tongzhou District, was to be their biggest performance ever in China, a last-ditch attempt to get back on their feet. They planned to showcase all their works – 11 pieces performed chronologically, supplemented with a series of cultural activities including an artists’ dialogue and body art festival. Tao said that the on-and-off pandemic and the absence of art made him realize “the significance of cheering up live art again.” Attaching so much significance to the show, they spent an entire year preparing, recruiting dancers, training and rehearsing. Dozens of people were involved, including 16 dancers.  

Tao told media that he hoped to strike a deal with a commercial backer to support his company. But pragmatically, he knew this level of cooperation was not realistic in China, particularly when the economy is struggling too.  

The past two years were also tough for Yunnan Imaging. In 2003, Yang Liping choreographed the large-scale original dance production with non-professional dancers from local villages. The next year the company toured China, and it was later staged in countries including the US, Australia and France.  

The performance was popular and won prestigious Chinese dance awards. Audiences flocked to the show. Before the pandemic, the company performed in the theater of the same name in Kunming, to which the company moved in 2019, every night. As a drama representing local culture, it was high on the itineraries of tour groups. In 2019, the team’s income rose by 5.53 percent year-on-year.  

But the pandemic put an end to all this as tourism was hit hard. In 2021, Yunnan Imaging was only staged 175 times, while costs rose by 420.35 percent after continuing to pay staff when they could not perform. Gross profits decreased by 219.89 percent, showing a severe financial deficit, according to the annual report of Yunnan Culture, a company founded by Yang Liping that of her Yunnan Imaging.  

Unlike regular dance companies, most of the performers in Yunnan Imaging are villagers with no professional training. Being part of the company gave them their livelihoods and they are unlikely to get jobs in other performing groups. That made Yang even more upset. “It’s me who brought you from the farm to the stage many years ago. But now you have to leave,” Yang said in the video, sobbing. 

Gloomy Business
What happened to these dance companies reflects the pressure the performing arts sector has been under since early 2020.  

On April 27, the China Association for Performing Arts released the yearly report on China’s performance market in 2021, which shows that the market scale was 33.6 billion yuan (US$5b), down 41.31 percent from 2019. The market recovered a bit in 2021, but not for long. In the first quarter of 2022, about 9,000 performances across all live events, including theater, music and festivals, were canceled or delayed, accounting for 30 percent of all performances. The situation is expected to worsen in the second quarter.  

Li Jiaqiu, a junior theater director who cooperates with companies to produce small-theater dramas, told NewsChina producers have been cutting back on production costs in the past two years. In 2021, in a drama Li directed, she planned to add Western-style music to the folk orchestra by adding four violinists. But there was no room in the budget. Then she added modern arrangements for the soundtrack. Again, no budget. In the end, she had to make do with folk music. The costumes were simplified. Her fee shrank by about 30 percent.  

“We understand why, it’s a tough time,” Li said, adding that without new shows, people are leaving the profession. “If they don’t perform, artists only get a basic salary of about 1,000 or 2,000 yuan (US$150-300) a month. Some take a second job, some just quit altogether,” she said.  

According to Qixinbao, a company information provider, in June and July 2020, 5,808 companies connected to the performing arts closed down.  

The gloominess is global. A report titled Reshaping Policies for Creativity released by UNESCO in February pointed out that several years before the pandemic, public expenditure for the global creative industry had already declined. Among the hardest hit by the pandemic, the cultural and creative sectors lost over 10 million jobs in 2020 alone, according to the report.  

Zhang Huiqing, general manager of the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center (SDAC), a professional theater company which also owns venues, told NewsChina that the pandemic might prompt creatives to think more about business administration. She said SDAC must generate 75 percent of its operating costs, with the rest covered by government grants, so it was also under financial pressure these past two years. The company survived the resurgence of Covid-19 so far because it deliberately kept the books healthy even before the pandemic. But she admitted that for many private companies, it would be hard to stay alive under these circumstances.  

“It’s possible only when there is a stable and mature team and the leaders of a troupe are capable on the artistic side and in business administration,” Zhang said. “But [even so] there’s maybe only a slight chance [of survival].” 

Tao Dance Theater, an independent contemporary dance company, stages a show at the Taihu Stage Art Center of the National Center for the Performing Arts, eastern Beijing’s Tongzhou District, October 2, 2021

Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center partners with Youku.com, one of China’s online video platforms and Damai.cn, an online ticket-booking platform, to stream classic dramas free of charge during the Omicron outbreak in the city in April and May, 2022

Staying Connected 
Performing arts companies have tried many new ways to connect with their audience, even though it may not be profitable.  

In 2020, amid Covid restrictions, many theaters and performing arts groups started experimenting with online content. Renowned institutions including the Beijing People’s Art Theater and National Theater of China offered free online shows and livestreamed performances.  

SDAC tried online activities in 2020 just after the pandemic broke out, including a program about chatting over hotpot. But they eventually returned to what they do best – dramatic performances. Until this year, Shanghai had never really felt the full brunt of the pandemic, and had not suffered a serious outbreak. On March 12, 2022, four days after Shanghai announced the suspension of all live performances due to the Omicron outbreak, SDAC put classic dramas online for free. Millions watched them. Other performing arts companies in Shanghai, including the Shanghai Grand Theater and Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, joined in. 
“We do this out of market concerns. We can’t sever our connection with our audience in case they forget us,” Zhang said.  

In reality, even though the online streams are popular, they generate little revenue. Zhang Xiaoding, general manager of the Shanghai Grand Theater, told Chinese media outlet Jiemian in April there was still no sustainable business model for online performances, which is more like a supplement to offline performances or to promote their brand. It is hard to make up for the experience of going to the theater.  

But the efforts paid off to a certain extent. Zhang said that after two months of online screenings, SDAC has gathered about 5,000 regular viewers who discuss the dramas in WeChat groups every day. They will probably attend live shows when theaters are allowed to reopen.  

Zhang Huiqing told NewsChina that she tried to bring in a camera team from the UK’s National Theatre in London, which has built a global audience for their National Theatre Live performances of classic and contemporary dramas, filmed live on stage and screened in cinemas. Ticket prices are far below the cost of traveling to London to see a play, but higher than a regular cinema ticket. Theater fans have proved willing to see plays in the cinema, especially for popular plays with well-known actors in lead roles. China started showing National Theater Live (NTLive) offerings in 2015. But the attempt to use the National Theater crew to film SDAC’s performances was derailed by the pandemic. Now Zhang Huiqing feels lucky it was halted as she found her own team could do almost equally excellent work now and she feels that localizing NTLive’s model in China will not be profitable. She believes the company should still put 90 percent of its energies into live performances with the NTLive model as a supplement and extension of stage art. 

State Aid
The UNESCO report called for governments worldwide to provide economic and social guarantees for artists and cultural professionals and ensure online platforms distribute income more fairly so artists that provide content for online consumption get their fair share.  

In China, as the impact from the pandemic showed, many local governments put forward subsidy plans to help cultural and art companies and tourism projects. Beijing provided ticket subsidies to the performing arts sector in 2020, depending on the size of the venue – small, medium or large – from 80 to 200 yuan (US$12-15) per ticket sold up to 30 percent of capacity. The theater got the subsidy, but they also had to sell cheaper tickets. In May 2020, Zhuhai in South China’s Guangdong Province announced a subsidy of up to 500,000 yuan (US$75,000) for each performance activity that was canceled due to the pandemic.  

In late April, Yunnan Culture founded by Yang Liping was among several performing companies that received a subsidy of 1 million yuan (US$149,900) from the government, so even though the company disbanded, it could reform. The Tao Dance Theater was not so lucky. But in May when NewsChina tried to talk to Tao Dance Theater again, it was still “seeking help in various ways,” said a publicity officer who declined to be interviewed.  

Many cities in China are gradually opening as the pandemic appears under control again. Beijing announced on June 6 the resumption of performance activities in most districts. The National Center for the Performing Arts, Beijing People’s Art Theatre and more resumed performances, capping attendance at 75 percent. Yet, only three days later, after an outbreak centered on several bars and nightclubs in Beijing’s most populous district of Chaoyang, the suspension of many entertainment venues was announced in large parts of the city, yet again.