One of the crowning achievements of BYU Performing Arts Management has been their establishment of international relations, friendships, and artistic excellence with China. In President Spencer W. Kimball’s 1978 missionary address, he focused on the obligation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to spread the gospel to “the uttermost parts of the earth,” and at that time China seemed unreachable. For decades before the 1980s, China was a close-knit country with no US diplomatic relations or tourists. However, upon hearing President Kimball’s message, then BYU president Dallin H. Oaks asked his assistant to prepare BYU performing groups to go to China.
A little over a year later, the faith and previously established relationships of BYU officials paid off. Following Jimmy Carter’s announcement of an exchange of formal diplomatic recognition between the US and China, BYU became one of the first universities to receive a tentative invitation to perform in China.
The first groups that went to China—the Young Ambassadors, Living Legends, and the Ballroom Dance Company—faced many obstacles in their preparations. China indicated the groups would be tourists and offered no official performance commitments. The groups were told four days before their departure to bring only simple musical instruments, significantly restricting their already minimal equipment. They were met at the airport in Guangdong Province by officials who demanded an immediate performance for inspection. Daunted but not discouraged, the BYU students performed for the officials in the middle of the busy airport. This pattern of proceeding with faith would follow them throughout their stay as they dealt with short notice for performances, scrutinizing audiences, and immersion in a foreign culture.
When asked to reflect on the experience, Bruce L. Olsen, the senior university official on the tour, said, “It was clear [our] first performance was a test. . . . Prior to leaving for China, we were told not to expect anything but light, polite applause, but this audience demanded four encores and not only gave a standing ovation but also held their hands high over their heads while clapping. It was the most enthusiastic response I have seen anywhere in the world.” Thus, through patience, faith, and the power of song and dance, BYU and its performing arts groups began a longtime friendship with China.
Click here to read more about BYU Performing Arts Management’s 40-year friendship with China.
Many years later, BYU president Kevin J Worthen met with China’s minister of education, who elaborated on the impact of BYU’s first visit to China by saying, “If you were to ask people over 55 in China what are the great universities in the United States, it would [be] Harvard, Yale, and BYU—and not necessarily in that order.”
Since 1979, BYU performing groups have been invited to return to China 28 times. On the 40th anniversary of that first tour, BYU took the university’s Spectacular show to China. The 2019 BYU China Spectacular included the Ballroom Dance Company, the Chamber Orchestra, the Cougarettes, the Dunk Team, International Folk Dance Ensemble, Living Legends, Vocal Point, and the Young Ambassadors. With an entourage of more than 200 people, it was “without a doubt the largest collaborative effort ever to be started at Brigham Young University,” explained Randy Boothe, artistic director for the Young Ambassadors.
As they did in their original 1979 visit, the BYU groups had to go forward with faith. After shipping issues left them with inadequate equipment, they were forced to hastily shop for new props, rearrange their choreography, and rent and program borrowed tech equipment, all while in a foreign country. Nevertheless, their practice and persistence paid off. They connected with their audiences, became immersed in Chinese culture, and were even reunited with their original equipment for their final two performances in Shanghai to experience the beautiful culmination of their tireless efforts.
Click here to watch the Beijing performance of the BYU China Spectacular.