China’s outdoor performance industry still remains controversial despite commercial success

By Huang Tingting Source:Global Times Published: 2016/9/20 18:43:39

A scene from Impression West Lake Photo: IC

While slammed by some as "money-driven projects that are all the same," outdoor performances that combine local songs and dances, laser light shows and natural scenery in one package have performed outstandingly well over the past decade.

Yet they have also faced endless criticism as well.

In early 2010, the then vice mayor of Linxiang, Central China's Hunan Province, publicly criticized Zhang Yimou's Impression series as a "production featuring costly visual effects and outrageously high ticket prices," adding that numerous "almost-the-same" performances could be found all across China.

Mei Shuaiyuan, one of the co-producers of Zhang's 2003 Impression Sanjie Liu show in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and now the head of outdoor performance company Scenery Culture, defended against these criticisms, calling these performances "unprecedented, leading creations."

Artistic merits aside, these performances have certainly been successful from a business perspective.

Mei's company has recently struck a deal with a Vietnamese company to co-produce an outdoor show at the coastal city of Da Nang that "is very likely to appear at the 2017 APEC meeting," according to the company's official website.

This will not be the first time these outdoor performances have been made part of major international events. Zhang also brought his 2007 performance Impression West Lake to the world stage at the recent G20 summit in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province. Zhang's involvement this year was actually somewhat out of the ordinary, as the director opted out of directing any new Impression sequels after 2011, probably due to the negative atmosphere that has been building among critics towards his shows.

While some may be tired of these giant spectacles, for many the outdoor performance industry is still magic.

Commercialized art

Many of the existing projects scattered around dozens of well-known scenic spots across China have already become permanent local tourist attractions.

According to Liang Shengzhi, former editor-in-chief of Chinese Scenic Spots, a periodical issued by the Scenic Spot Branch of the China Tourism Association, outdoor scenic performance first got their start as a way to fill in the blank that was night-time tourism.

"Thanks to the show, a number of tourists who finish their day trips now choose to stay overnight. This has promoted the growth of local restaurants and lodging facilities," Liang said.

The huge success of Impression Sanjie Liu proved that these projects could be highly lucrative. This attracted investors and other companies to try their own hand at it. Data shows that currently there are more than 200 such performances in China being run by numerous companies, including Mei's Scenery Culture, Wanda Group and Guanyinxiang, in which Zhang is a shareholder.

According to a September 6 report on news portal, since the first show in the Impression series was launched in 2003 the series has brought in 1 billion yuan ($150 million) in revenue annually.

While these numbers may sound attractive to investors, Liang pointed out that producers of new projects often calculate expected revenues by assuming most of the seats have been sold. However in reality, "You'll be lucky to have 20-30 percent of a tour group come watch a show at night after a tiring day."

Liang also mentioned high ticket prices as a hurdle.

Of the 10 people who have attended at least one Impression show, five mentioned that prices were "a bit high," while two confessed that they got their tickets for free and wouldn't have gone otherwise.

A matter of taste

For Buyan (pseudonym), an art criticism major, Impression Sanjie Liu is just another typical Zhang-style performance.

"Though debuting five years before the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games opening ceremony, they are very similar to it with their strong Zhang-style," she told the Global Times, summing up the series as "a loosely-organized use of human bodies and colors."

"When a group of performers walk past the audience holding village flags, it seems to be alienating ethnic minority cultures," Buyan said.

"And making audiences watch from high platform seats that are far from the stage means all they can see are moving dots. This means they can only interpret local culture in an equivocal and abstract way."

Buyan also took issue with the series' controversial nude scenes, calling them "an inappropriate way to showcase the body lines of women as they have erotic implications."

Unlike art critics, audiences, however, have been more generous with their reviews of the series. Impression Sanjie Liu has a 8.3/10 on media review site Douban. Beautiful music, large-scale scenes and great use of lighting seem to be audiences' favorite parts of the shows.

Wang Xin, a professor at the Beijing International Studies University's School of Tourist Management, is also positive about these performances, calling them one of China's tourism innovations that are sure to have continued success in the future.

This future may be in doubt however, as a report from the 2016 China Tourist Performance Conference in April revealed that audience numbers have been falling since 2013. Yet, despite this, the fever for outdoor performances won't fade immediately. While older projects are losing their appeal, new ones are already on their way.

Newspaper headline: Good impression

Posted in: Theater

blog comments powered by Disqus