Ballet in the City: Jewish Contributions to the Performing Arts in 1930s Shanghai

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THE JEWS OF SHANGHAI have been the subject of many memoirs and novels, especially regarding the more than 24,000 refugees who fled Nazi Europe in the 1930s. Kirsty Manning Jade Lily’s song (2018) and Rachel DeWoskin One day we will fly (2019) are two recent novels that tell stories of Jewish refugees who fled to the Chinese city, one of the only places in the world that did not need papers at the time.

Other books have spoken of a Jewish community in Shanghai before the refugees arrived. At Taras Grescoe Greater Shanghai (2016) and Jonathan Kaufman The last kings of Shanghai (2020) focus on Baghdadi Jewish families like the Sassoons and Kadoories, families who arrived in Shanghai a century before the start of World War II. Without these Baghdadis, Jews fleeing Germany and Eastern Europe would not have enjoyed the benefits of an established Jewish community, if only in the form of soup kitchens or group homes.

Judaism is not a monolithic culture, as the various communities of Shanghai before and during the war show. Besides the refugees and businessmen from Baghdadi, Shanghai was also home to Jews in the performing arts. Very little has been written about their contributions to Shanghai before the Japanese took control of most of the city in 1937.

These contributions centered on two people: Russian Jewish composer Aaron Avshalomov and American Jewish theater producer Bernardine Szold Fritz. Their collaboration brought Chinese ballet to Shanghai, perhaps for the first time on a large scale.

Avshalomov left Russia to study medicine in Zurich before the Bolshevik Revolution. After graduating from school, his family, worried about the instability at home, sent him to the United States to practice. But by the end of the 1910s he had decided to leave medicine and the United States and pursue a career in music. He moved to Shanghai.

At the time, the customs of this port city were not administered by the Chinese authorities, nor managed by the French, British or American authorities, all of whom held local concessions. Due to these loose arrangements, Shanghai became a haven for anyone looking for a new home. It attracted Russians fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution and Jews fleeing the pogroms. In Shanghai, Avshalomov worked with other Jewish musicians.

Bernardine Szold Fritz was a Jewish actress turned journalist who fled three husbands before the age of 30, arriving in Shanghai in 1929 to marry her fourth husband, an American money broker. Born in Peoria, Illinois, she had performed at the Little Theater in Chicago before moving to New York and then to Paris, where she rubbed shoulders with Ernest Hemingway, Paul Robeson, Dorothy Parker, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein, among others.

In Shanghai, Bernardine opened a fair, bringing together Chinese and foreign writers, artists, musicians and actors. At the beginning of 1933, she invited Avshalomov and learned that he had written a ballet, The soul of Ch’in, while living in Beijing in 1925-1926. The ballet had been performed in Portland, Oregon in the late 1920s, but had not yet been produced in China. Suddenly, Bernardine envisioned a new project that inspired her to think beyond her living room. She convinced Avshalomov that they could both produce her ballet on location in Shanghai. No stranger to the dance world, she was friends with Ruth Page, the American ballerina, and her partner, Harald Kreutzberg, a German pioneer of modern dance.

Avshalomov’s experience in China – he had lived there for almost 15 years – and Bernardine’s theatrical training enabled the duo to bring to Shanghai a ballet that would appeal to all art lovers, Chinese and expatriates. Bernardine also drew on her relationships with the financial, political and artistic communities of Shanghai. She and Avshalomov knew members of the influential Soong family, including Madame Chiang Kai-shek (or Soong Mei-ling) and Madame Sun Yat-sen (or Soong Ching-ling), both avid patrons of the arts.

The performance took place on May 21, 1933, at 9.15 p.m. at the new Grand Théâtre. The list of sponsors and organizers included some of China’s most prominent figures, including writer Lin Yutang, painter Georgette Chen (wife of diplomat Eugene Chen) and Peking Opera star Mei Lanfang, a regular at the show. by Bernardine. The founder of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, the former director of the Bank of China and the president of Peking University, and, among expatriates, Baroness von Ungern Sternberg, wife of the United States Consul General , the wife of a German shipping agent and a Jewish woman named Theresa Renner who lived in Shanghai for 30 years and met Albert Einstein during his 1922 trip to the city.

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Designed by Hungarian architect László Hudec, the Grand Theater was located at the north end of the Shanghai Race Club. The Art Deco building was brand new and had yet to officially open as a cinema. He promised state-of-the-art screens and simultaneous translation for the films that would begin airing three weeks after the ballet. When Bernardine sat in the audience and looked up, she saw an illuminated ceiling shaped like a giant Art Deco scallop. The exterior was a masterpiece of vertical and horizontal lines.

The ballet was only one of three acts that night. The performance began with a Chinese “Ta Tung” orchestra playing a selection of classical Chinese themes on native instruments. Wei Chung Loh followed the orchestra’s medleys with a pipa solo. Avshalomov organized the second part of the program, which included a few pieces performed by the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra conducted by Mario Paci. This part began with a poem, “The Last Words of Tsing-Wen” by Chu Man-hua. After the poem, a short musical performance entitled “In Hutungs of Peiping”, also by the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra. The lights then came on for a short intermission so the audience could stretch out and the orchestra could settle in for the ballet.

The soul of Ch’in was perhaps the first Chinese ballet performed on a large scale in China. While Anna Pavlova performed in Shanghai in 1922, inspiring dozens of young Chinese to study the ballet of the many Russian emigrants who had fled to the city after the Bolshevik Revolution, I could find no mention of ballet performances in large scale of Chinese stories in Shanghai or elsewhere in China before Bernardine, Avshalomov and their friends produced The soul of Ch’in in 1933. The event is all the more remarkable as the cast of dancers is entirely Chinese, as are the scenographers, the playwright and the stage manager. In fact, the only strangers on the team were the costume designer and the person in charge of the lights.

The ballet takes place during a war. The trumpets heralded the triumph of the victorious rebel general, Go Chai. Emperor Yien Wang withdrew as his palace was in flames. By Lake Sai Nan, General Go Chai hid in a boat to confront the Emperor. The emperor was joined by Kinsei, a devoted friend and renowned harpist. “See, there’s a boat by the lake. Take it; cross the lake, reorganize your army and fight again, ”Kinsei told the emperor. But the emperor did not dare to escape and instead attempted to commit suicide. Kinsei saved the emperor and guided him to the getaway boat.

Suddenly, Go Chai jumped out of the boat. The Emperor called him a traitor, and a sword fight ensued in which the Emperor was fatally wounded. Kinsei rushed to his aid, but it was too late. General Go Chai demanded that Kinsei play the harp for him, declaring himself the new emperor. Still devoted to the fallen Emperor Yien Wang, Kinsei began to perform, and Go Chai became fascinated by the magic of music. As Kinsei waved his wand – counting one, two, three, four – Go Chai fell unconscious.

Out of nowhere, a dancer – the soul freed from Kinsei’s harp – appeared on the lake. She put a spell on General Go Chai and pulled him into the water until she covered his head. Then the sight of the girl evaporated and the waters became calm again.

In the final act, Kinsei strummed his harp, playing a song that depicts his loneliness. “The music ripples like a pale line of ascending incense smoke, endlessly fading into the shadows of the night.” Kinsei fell on his harp as Emperor Yien Wang suddenly awoke. Trying to help his friend, the Emperor reached out to Kinsei. Exhausted and weak, Kinsei told the Emperor that he owed his gratitude to the harp, not Kinsei. “Take it, it is my gift to my beloved master. I am ready to join my ancestors. Kinsei fell dead and the Emperor shed tears as the curtain fell.

The audience jumped to their feet amid thunderous applause.

Shanghai had never seen an evening like this before, with Chinese and Western artists all working together. From this performance, Bernardine and her friends started the Theater des Arts International. It would continue to offer lectures, art exhibitions, plays and theater lessons to art lovers in Shanghai.

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Three years later, in 1936, the two friends work together again to produce Avsholomov’s film. Wei Lien’s dream. This time, Avshalomov conducted the Shanghai Municipal Symphony himself, and the ballet took place at the Metropol Theater.

The story centered on Hu Wei Lien, a young woman who lived with her father and stepmother. In order to gain more wealth, the mother-in-law sought to betroth Wei Lien to an evil warrior named Ling Le Zah. Although Ling’s family is very well off, Wei Lien’s father feared that such a marriage would only cause his daughter to grief. To find strength, Wei Lien began to pray to Goddess Kuan Yin every night. She did not see how she could come out of the arranged marriage and felt that she needed Kuan Yin’s support to help her survive. Still, Kuan Yin gave her another piece of advice: Wei Lien shouldn’t marry Ling but rather find a young scholar who would honor her and her family.

The ballet was performed in three acts, in the last of which the warrior Ling went into battle, never hearing from him again. Wei Lien met a young scholar while he was going to take his exams in Beijing, and they got married. In honor of their wedding, the entire cast took to the stage for a big garden dance.

In a review of Wei Lien’s dream, one of the Shanghai newspapers reported that the ballet was “without a doubt one of the best things done in the local theater for many months.”

The following year, Japan bombed parts of Shanghai and the war in Asia began. Bernardine left Shanghai for Los Angeles just before the bombing began, but Avshalomov remained there and was interned in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation (1941-1945). He returned to the United States in 1947. Around this time, he and Bernardine reunited when he gave a talk in Beverly Hills. Avshalomov spoke about the music he composed for The great wall, an opera based on the story of Lady Meng Jiang, a woman in search of her husband after he was drafted to help build the Great Wall.

Selected pieces of Avshalomov’s music can be found on Spotify, and Bernardine is remembered as a footnote in several books on 1930s Shanghai. Through their efforts, ballet became – and has remained – a form of folk art in the city.

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Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of a memoir and co-editor of a collection of dark short stories set in Hong Kong. She lives in Chicago and is working on a biography of Bernardine Szold Fritz.


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