When international-award-winning ballet dancer and choreographer Li Ying returned to China in 2007 to establish a brand-new dance company, many might have assumed she would settle in her native city of Shanghai, which has a flourishing performance arts scene.
However, Li Ying chose Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP) as the base for Suzhou Ballet Theatre, which she founded with her husband, Pan Jiabin, - himself a Suzhou native.
It was more than just family ties that led the couple to opt for SIP. Just as important, says Li Ying, was the support for cultural endeavors offered by SIP's administrators and the Suzhou Culture & Arts Center, along with the opportunities for artistic development and exposure to international influences.
"Suzhou is a really new market, started from scratch, and we are a small ballet company, which means we have to be creative and innovative," said Li. "That's why we made it our aim to add one new show to our repertoire each year."
The company has performed many classical Pas de Deux, such as Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, La Sylphide, Sleeping Beauty, and Coppelia. Led by Pan Jiabin as the artistic director, the dancers have created choreography with Chinese traditional characteristics of Double Happiness, neo-classical symphonic ballet Chopin's Poem, China's contemporary ballet Dancing on Rock.
Sowing the seeds of development
The freedom offered by SIP's funding is allowing Li Ying to use her company as a seed for modernizing the country's approach to ballet.
"Although ballet has 60 years of history in China, it has historically had very little variety, concentrating on classics such as Swan Lake," she said. "After my decade-long career in the US, I came to realize that more was needed to be done to change things in China."
The company also gives back to SIP in more than just staging performances. It conducts pre-show seminars, joint education-programs with international schools, and its ballet studio is open to the public.
The presence of so many international companies in SIP is also a boon for Li Ying, as it provides a multinational audience with broad tastes, as well as opportunities for overseas cooperation and funding.
"On top of bringing in international audiences, we also look forward to deeper corporate engagement, especially from multi-nationals."
The presence of cultural practitioners such as Li Ying has raised the attractiveness of SIP to international talents, who may be moving to SIP long-term with their families and want to live rich, fulfilling lives.
Full artistic range
Suzhou Ballet Theatre is just one example of the myriad of initiatives that fall under the Suzhou Culture & Arts Center.
The center was founded in 2007 with investment of over RMB 1 billion. Its endeavors include a cinema, a theater, an art gallery, and other venues for the enjoyment and promotion of the arts.
Zhang Liang, the general manager of Suzhou Culture & Arts Center, says their benchmarks include Singapore's Esplanade Arts Center and leading domestic arts centers such as the National Grand Theater of China, Shanghai Grand Theater, Guangzhou Grand Theater, and Shanghai Oriental Art Center.
Central to the center's strategy is an integrated approach that exposes audiences to a range of art forms. "For example, when waiting to see a movie, visitors may get a chance to enjoy an art exhibition," said Zhang. "Our aim is to give people access to art forms they might otherwise never think of seeking out."
And it seems the efforts are paying off. Zhang reports that the utilization rate of the center is 100% for the smaller venues and 75% for the larger theater, meaning there are forums, shows, exhibitions and other free programs open to the general public every day.
There is also a healthy diversity in the range of art forms represented, with music, theater, dance, opera, and film across a diversity of styles including western, eastern, classical and modern.
Indeed, the center is increasingly being recognized on the international stage.
It has hosted the iSING! festival three years running. Founded and co-sponsored by the Asian Performing Arts Council of USA, iSING! aims to promote young singers with knowledge of both eastern and western culture. This year it attracted 40 artists from 20 countries.
Meanwhile, the Suzhou Symphony Orchestra has announced at its official launch ceremony on November 18 the lineup for its debut performance in December. Its top management and organizing committee include famous conductor Chen Xieyang, Metropolitan Opera's former coach Katherine Chu, China Symphony Development Foundation President Chen Guangxian, and the Yale School of Music dean Robert Blocker.
Among its ranks are talented musicians from 15 countries across the world, including China, US, UK, France, Spain, Italy, Russia, Israel, Korea and Japan.
Developing the cultural industry
For Chen Long, Deputy Director of SIP's Publicity Department, increasing the cultural richness of SIP also has knock-on benefits for the wider cultural industries, and SIP's endeavor to continue its industrial transformation and spearhead the move away from labor-intensive industries.
"Culture not only has a lot to do with what we call the 'soft power' of the region, but also the hard-power, with culture-related industrial vigor as an important element," said Chen.
Chen points to a number of examples to illustrate how creativity, design and sports are related to high-end manufacturing such as industrial design, new techniques and new materials. These include the annual Suzhou Creative & Design Cultural Industry Expo, which has been held at SIP for the past four years. The Expo consists of conferences and competitions in software and apps, movie and games production, and rural leisure and tourism.
Then there's the raft of creative-focused accelerators and incubators that SIP has established. These include TusPark, jointly with Tsinghua University's Tus Holdings Group; and Founders Park, with Peking University's Founders Group; plus the CMC Holdings initiative in conjunction with media icon Li Ruigang, with initial funding of over RMB 10 billion.
Cultural infrastructure wise, SIP Sports Center, with a capacity of 45,000 seats, is to be put in operation by mid-2018. Another grand cultural and expo center, at the convergence of Jinji Lake and major urban SIP, has been the first China-masterpiece by Pritzker Prize-winning French architect Christian de Portzamparc. Then there's the Huayi Brothers Movie World, essentially a local version of Universal Studios based on Chinese films and culture.
The power of art
SIP is also looking to the past as it builds into the future, and the area's rich cultural heritage is informing its development strategy.
"Only when we manage to integrate modernization with the traditional cultural heritage are we able to establish true cultural confidence," said Chen. "This also helps native farmers become 'modernized citizens'."
"SIP has never lost sight of the past," he continued. "The land occupied by SIP was once home to many famous cultural families. We have a multi-year-long project, specifically digging into the family origins of those old-time cultural celebrities residing on the land where SIP is located."
Grant Horsfield agrees. The founder of naked Group, a lifestyle community that promotes sustainability and creativity, Horsfield is a big believer of the cultural ties where 'shared values' are highlighted.
"Traditional wisdom is passed from generation to generation and indigenous people have a broad knowledge of how to live sustainably," said Horsfield. "If anything, as China urbanizes, we need to work hard to avoid losing this valuable asset, and use the knowledge to influence the tradeoff decisions in managing urbanization."
SIP is now home to 800,000 permanent residents, of which only 200,000 are the local, making immigrants account for 75% of the population.
According to SIP's Chen, this puts SIP in line with U.N. metrics for cultural cities, which take into account such factors as percentage of foreign residents, how well the city is received by the immigrant population, sophistication of cultural infrastructure, and international activities and events.
"We are working hard on every dimension of these metrics, and on the journey to making SIP a truly culturally-attractive city, with international flavor, youthful vigor and an unparalleled richness of heritage," said Chen.
"The main goal of our work is to bring real benefits to citizens so they have a sense of fulfillment. SIP is a young city that has significant economic development. Our work is to help citizens achieve a spiritual fulfillment that well matches the economic one."