The performing arts are an almost universal language that can build a bridge between China and the rest of the world, Alison Friedman ’02 told a small audience in Petteruti Lounge in the Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center Wednesday.
In 2009, Friedman created Ping Pong Productions — which celebrated its three-year anniversary this past Thursday — as a way to encourage cultural exchange. She said she noticed few people were working to facilitate relationships between Chinese artists and other performing artists.
Drawing on a decade of experience in management and dance, as well as significant time spent in China, she decided to create the company.
Friedman said the name is a nod to ping-pong diplomacy from the Nixon era and is pronounced the same in Chinese and English. She added that since life is supposed to be fun, she did not want a serious name for her business.
Calling themselves “artistic ambassadors,” members of this company work to create lasting relationships between Chinese artists and others, she said.
Friedman said a lot of her work is putting out fires and building bridges. People do things differently, and her company works to soothe tempers and help performers understand other cultures.
Friedman said she believes the arts are uniquely suited to bridging the gap between China and the world, even though not all cultures agree on the definition of modern dance.
Choosing to study Chinese was almost happenstance for Friedman, she said. Her Washington, D.C. high school offered Chinese, and at 14, she decided to study the language. Friedman stuck with it through Brown, she said, but still was not sure how she could combine her love of dance with her love of Chinese. “What am I doing taking Chinese?” she recalled thinking.
An internship in 2001 for CNN in Beijing opened her eyes to how she could combine her two interests.
When she was not working, Friedman performed with a dance company, the Living Dance Studio, and found they had a shared culture of modern dance. “I felt like I found family,” she told the audience.
After that revelation, Friedman applied for the Fulbright Fellowship to study modern dance in China. She wanted to know if other dance studios were like the Living Dance studio, or if it was unique.
After her Fulbright funding ran out, Friedman opted to continue her work in China. One of her jobs was to help traveling companies interact with local performers, she said, to facilitate a relationship between the companies, the performers and the audience. The performers wanted to help the audience understand what was going on so they could truly appreciate the beauty of the show, Friedman said.
In 2005, Friedman was the production coordinator for the John F. Kennedy Center Festival of China in Washington, D.C., the largest festival of Chinese performers in American history. She said even crew members backstage traded ideas and tips on how to make a show run smoothly.
Friedman drew on those experiences to help her in this company, she said. Ping Pong Productions has been so successful that Friedman’s main problem is not finding more projects, but hiring the support staff to work on them.
As a woman operating a company in China, Friedman said while she was often deemed non-threatening and treated less aggressively by male colleagues, it could also be difficult to be taken seriously. Friedman added that her age was more of a barrier than her gender. She said she sometimes forgets that she has to play a role — namely the young, naive, female foreigner — when dealing with some people in China.