Congratulations to Tan Yuan Yuan, my favorite Chinese ballerina, for being awarded the prestigious Dance Magazine Award this year. She received the prize in New York on December 10, 2013. While visiting New York last fall, I met a guy called Michael Tong through the tenant of my mom. He is currently in the auction business and came to my mom’s place to look at my late father’s artwork, among other things. Turns out that he was actually an organizer of ballet tours for many years in the past. He was the one who brought San Francisco Ballet to China in 2009. He told me he knows Tan Yuan Yuan very well, having gone to the same school with Tan in Shanghai but in a different era. He also recounted all the hurdles and red tape he had to go through in bringing U.S. ballet companies to perform in China.
First, he had to persuade the U.S. ballet companies (including SF Ballet and Tulsa Ballet) to take the “A cast” to China in addition to the B and the C casts. At first they were not convinced, but there was a lot of diplomatic work to do in order to prove that Beijing had the best facilities and an adequate audience who appreciate ballet. Having finally secured the casts, then there was the business side to manage. Each cultural exchange cost millions of U.S. dollars to put together—paying for airline tickets, hotels, venue and promotion, etc. He told me he had to get a lot of corporate sponsors so that the dancers could be paid properly, with a daily stipend and good hotel accommodation. In the end, he said, those companies expect nothing short of a return favor of sponsorship somewhere “down the line.” This is what is meant by guanxi in China. He seems to be politically well-connected, being able to invite all the important political leaders to attend the performances.
Still, it was not easy to sell tickets. While the shows with principal dancers like Tan were able to sell most of the tickets, shows with the B and C casts were able to fill only about 60% of the seats. In the end, for all the effort, his company earned “only about US$200,000” for each tour. Nonetheless, it was a satisfying experience for him. And after a successful visit by the San Francisco Ballet in Beijing, the U.S. Ambassador invited him and the ballet company members to a dinner at his own residence.