Ballet in the City: Jewish Contributions to the Performing Arts in 1930s Shanghai
By Susan Blumberg-KasonSeptember 18, 2021
Other books have told of a Jewish community in Shanghai before the refugees arrived. Taras Grescoe’s Shanghai Grand (2016) and Jonathan Kaufman’s The Last Kings of Shanghai (2020) center around Baghdadi Jewish families like the Sassoons and Kadoories, families that arrived in Shanghai a century before the onset of World War II. Without these Baghdadis, the Jews fleeing Germany and Eastern Europe would not have enjoyed the benefits of an established Jewish community, even just in the form of soup kitchens or group homes.
Judaism is not a monolithic culture, as the different communities in Shanghai before and during the war show. Besides the refugees and the Baghdadi businesspeople, Shanghai was also home to Jews in the performing arts. Very little has been written about their contributions to Shanghai before the Japanese took over most of the city in 1937.
These contributions centered around 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 grand scale.
Avshalomov left Russia to study medicine in Zürich before the Bolshevik Revolution. After he completed his studies, his family, worried about the instability at home, sent him to the United States to practice there. But by the end of the 1910s, he had decided to leave medicine and the US, and pursue a career in music. He moved to Shanghai.
At the time, customs in this port city were not administered by Chinese officials, nor was it managed by French, British, or American authorities, all of which held local concessions. Because of these loose arrangements, Shanghai became a refuge for anyone seeking a new home. It attracted Russians fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution and Jews escaping 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 silver broker. Born in Peoria, Illinois, she had acted at Chicago’s Little Theatre before moving to New York and then Paris, where she mixed with Ernest Hemingway, Paul Robeson, Dorothy Parker, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein, among others.
In Shanghai, Bernardine started a salon, bringing together Chinese and foreign writers, artists, musicians, and actors. In early 1933, she invited Avshalomov and learned that he had written a ballet, The Soul of the Ch’in, while living in Peking in 1925–’26. The ballet had been performed in Portland, Oregon, in the late ’20s, but had yet to be produced in China. Suddenly Bernardine envisioned a new project that inspired her to think beyond her living room. She convinced Avshalomov that the two of them together could produce his ballet right there in Shanghai. Not unfamiliar with the dance world, she was friendly with Ruth Page, the American ballerina, and her partner, Harald Kreutzberg, a German pioneer in modern dance.
Avshalomov’s experience in China — he had already lived there for almost 15 years — and Bernardine’s theatrical background allowed the duo to bring a ballet to Shanghai that would appeal to all arts enthusiasts, both Chinese and expat. Bernardine also tapped into her connections in Shanghai’s financial, political, and artistic communities. 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 ran on May 21, 1933, at 9:15 p.m. at the new Grand Theatre. The list of sponsors and organizers included some of the most prominent figures in China, including the writer Lin Yutang, the painter Georgette Chen (wife of diplomat Eugene Chen), and Peking opera star Mei Lanfang, a regular of Bernardine’s salon. Also involved were the founder of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, the former head of the Bank of China, and the president of Peking University, and, among the expats, the Baroness von Ungern Sternberg, the wife of the US 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 on his 1922 trip to the city.
Designed by Hungarian architect László Hudec, the Grand Theatre sat at the northern end of the Shanghai Race Club. The Art Deco building was brand new and had not yet officially opened as a cinema. It promised state-of-the-art screens and simultaneous translation for the films that would start showing 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 shell. The exterior was a masterpiece of vertical and horizontal lines.
The ballet made up only one of the three acts that evening. The performance began with a Chinese “Ta Tung” Orchestra playing a selection of classic Chinese themes on native instruments. Wei Chung Loh followed the orchestra’s medleys with a pipa solo. Avshalomov arranged the second part of the program, which included a couple of 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. Following the poem was a short musical performance titled “In Hutungs of Peiping,” also by the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra. The lights then came on for a short intermission so the audience could stretch and the orchestra could set up for the ballet.
The Soul of the Ch’in was possibly the first Chinese ballet performed on a grand scale in China. While Anna Pavlova performed in Shanghai in 1922, inspiring scores of young Chinese to study ballet from the many Russian émigrés that had fled to the city after the Bolshevik Revolution, I could find no mention of large-scale ballet performances of Chinese stories in Shanghai or elsewhere in China before Bernardine, Avshalomov, and their friends produced The Soul of the Ch’in in 1933. The event was even more remarkable because the cast of dancers was all Chinese, as were the set designers, dramaturge, and stage manager. In fact, the only foreigners on the crew were the costume designer and the person managing the lights.
The ballet was set during a war. Trumpets announced the triumph of the victorious rebel general, Go Chai. The emperor Yien Wang retreated as his palace went up in flames. By the shore of the Sai Nan Lake, General Go Chai hid in a boat to confront the emperor. The emperor was joined by Kinsei, a devoted friend and noted harpist. “See, there is a boat by the lake. Take it; cross the lake, reorganize your army and fight again,” Kinsei told the emperor. But the emperor didn’t dare escape and instead attempted to take his own life. Kinsei saved the emperor and guided him toward the getaway boat.
Suddenly, Go Chai jumped from 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 play, and Go Chai became entranced by the magic of the music. As Kinsei waved his wand — counting one, two, three, four — Go Chai fell unconscious.
Out of nowhere, a dancing girl — the released soul of Kinsei’s harp — appeared on the lake. She cast a spell on General Go Chai and lured him into the water until it covered his head. Then, the vision of the girl evaporated and the waters became calm again.
In the final act, Kinsei strummed his harp, playing a song that depicted his loneliness. “The music waves like a pale line of ascending incense smoke, fading to infinity in the shadows of night.” Kinsei tumbled over 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 to Kinsei. “Take it — it is my gift to my beloved master. I am ready to join my ancestors.” Kinsei fell over dead, and the emperor shed tears as the curtain fell.
The audience leapt to its feet in roaring applause.
Shanghai had never seen an evening like this before, with Chinese and Western performers all working together. From this performance, Bernardine and her friends started the International Arts Theater. It would go on to bring lectures, art exhibits, plays, and theater classes to arts enthusiasts in Shanghai.
Three years later, in 1936, the two friends worked together again to produce Avsholomov’s The Dream of Wei Lien. This time, Avshalomov conducted the Shanghai Municipal Symphony himself, and the ballet was held at the Metropol Theater.
The story centered around Hu Wei Lien, a young woman who lived with her father and stepmother. In order to gain more wealth, the stepmother sought to betroth Wei Lien to an evil warrior named Ling Le Zah. Although Ling’s family was very well off, Wei Lien’s father worried that such a marriage would only bring sorrow to his daughter. To find strength, Wei Lien started praying each night to the goddess Kuan Yin. She didn’t see how she could get out of the arranged marriage and felt she needed the support of Kuan Yin to help her survive. Yet Kuan Yin gave her different advice: Wei Lien should not marry Ling but rather find a young scholar who would honor her family and her.
The ballet was performed in three acts, in the last of which the warrior Ling went off to battle, never to be heard from again. Wei Lien met a young scholar on his way to sit for his exams in Peking, and they married. In honor of their wedding, the entire cast came out on stage for a large garden dance.
In a review of The Dream of Wei Lien, one of Shanghai’s newspapers reported the ballet was “undoubtedly one of the finest things done in the local theatre for many months.”
The following year, Japan bombed parts of Shanghai, and the war in Asia commenced. Bernardine left Shanghai for Los Angeles just before the bombing started, but Avshalomov stayed behind and was interned in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation (1941–’45). He returned to the US in 1947. Sometime around then, he and Bernardine reunited when he gave a talk in Beverly Hills. Avshalomov spoke about the music he had composed for The Great Wall, an opera based on the story of Lady Meng Jiang, a woman searching for her husband after he was conscripted 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 about 1930s Shanghai. Thanks to their efforts, ballet became — and has remained — a popular art form in the city.
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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