An Interview With Alison M. Friedman

What was the spark that first made you interested in dance?

Tap dance was my entry level drug to the world of dance. I started when I was 10 years old and it was the first after-school activity I didn’t quit. From there, I started modern dance and in highschool and college I became very involved in West African dance, travelling to Mali to study traditional dance and drumming. What I loved about all of the forms from the beginning was how they required both physical and mental attention in class, and in rehearsal/performance also emotional investment. Dance was the first thing I found to be completely all-encompassing of my being. I never feel more alive than when I’m dancing.

When people ask you what you do, how do you generally respond?

Depends on what project I’m working on! Choreographer, producer, manager, translator, director, performer… My current occupation as General Manager of Parnassus Productions, the production company for composer/conductor Tan Dun, is the first full-time job I’ve had. I was technically full-time at Beijing Modern Dance Company as their International Director, but I was able to balance that with many of my own independent (though related) projects. So I’m adjusting to having a simple answer to that question for the first time in my life.

Can you describe a typical working day?

That is very difficult. It depends on what project I’m working on (before my own projects, now Tan Dun’s projects) and what stage of the progress we are in. Since I’m almost always working with organizations in different time zones, my day could start with a dance class in the morning and end with a conference call with New York or Amsterdam at 10 or 11pm. In between, a combination of rehearsals, meetings, meals that may or may not be work-related (usually are) and hopefully a massage snuck in somewhere.

What kind of work is involved in putting together a major dance festival in Beijing?

Among many other things, logistics of What, When and Where. You decide what your content is, what you will showcase and why it is relevant to Beijing audiences at this time. And you apply for the permit for that content. You decide what time of year you have the festival so that it doesn’t conflict with a national holiday, another organization’s festival, or anything else that will hurt ticket sales. (You then also start the push and pull across the cultural divide between international dance companies who plan their touring seasons six months to a year in advance, and the China side who plans/decides everything tomorrow/never/after the fact.) And you apply for the permit for that time period. You decide what venue(s) you will hold the festival – government theatre? Private venue? How many seats? Will you need separate rehearsal space for the dance companies to rehearse when the technicians are setting up? And you apply for the permit to use that theatre. Oh, and also, did I mention you need to apply for a permit?

What is the most challenging part of your job?

Putting up with divas.

Do you have a favorite quote that you live by?

Jodi Kaplan, the US producer of the “booking DANCE FESTIVAL beijing 2008” actually said something that I think has to be the motto for working in the arts – or really anything – in China: “I’m not a masochist, I’m an optimist!”

Can you briefly talk about your work with the Beijing Modern Dance Company?

I worked as their International Director from 2005-2008. I booked and organized their international tours, and arranged for international artists to come to Beijing and work with them. I took company class with the dancers in the morning and emailed Norway in the afternoon. We toured almost 30% of the year in Europe, Asia, Central America…It was incredible to be part of this family with a shared vision and feel like together we were building something here in China.

How important is your Chinese language in your job? Do you ever get tired of interpreting or translating when you are not working officially?

Chinese language is crucial as I work in Chinese organizations and often act as the diplomat between the Chinese artists/organizations and the foreign entities. It’s a fun responsibility to be the ‘gate keeper’ of understanding between two groups or individuals who could not communicate without my assistance, but power trips aside, I’m so thankful I have the language to allow me to get closer to friends here and gain a deeper understanding of the culture and paradigms.That said, it can get quite exhausting at times because you can start to feel you lose your own voice and only become a mouthpiece for the two parties. When I used to tour with the Beijing Modern Dance Company, even my ‘off’ time when I would go site seeing or shopping with the dancers I’d still have to be ‘on’ as interpreter. There were afternoons where I had to stop talking and the dancers knew they couldn’t ask me to translate “Are these G-Star Raw jeans on sale?” anymore.

You have participated in all kinds of cultural interactions as an interpreter. Can you tell me one of your most "colorful" interactions?

In 2005 I associate produced a project between Stanford University’s Martin Luther King Research and Education Institute, and the National Theatre Company of China. We staged a Chinese-language play about the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. The cast was all Chinese from the National Theatre and we brought in five gospel singers from the US to sing songs from the Civil Rights Movement. I had to be very careful about how I translated some of the things the Chinese hosts would say to the first group of Black people they had ever met, let alone ever worked with. Everyone was very friendly and welcoming, but certain turns of phrase that may be common in Chinese -- Huanying women hei ren pengyou! Wa, ni zhen hei! – don’t come across as comfortably in English.

What is the most frustrating part about living and working in China?

The most frustrating part about living in Beijing is still the pollution and traffic. The most frustrating part about working here is coming up against people who just don’t feel like doing their jobs. I once worked with a theater lighting technician who told me he didn’t want to move the lights in the theatre according to the light plot for our performance because it was “tai mafan.” [For those of you who don’t work in theater, the only job a theatre lighting technician has is to move the lights to the position specified on the performing company’s the light plot.]

Where do you see yourself in five years from now?

I hate this question. What are you, my father?

What are you reading at the moment?

Harvard Business Review “Managing Your Boss.”

When you want to "switch off" and chill out, where would that be?

The 'Ou Jiang Health Spa' in the basement of 3.3 mall. A strange place for a relaxing Chinese medicine retreat, but by far the best Chinese massages I’ve had in this town in six years.

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