The Art of Performance

By Stuart Lancaster 2019-05-29 10:57:10

Performing Arts is an area which is blossoming in Shanghai and parents are seeing the broader spectrum of benefits associated with participation in drama and dance. Each school has their approach whether it is through the Inter Baccalaureate curriculum at the Shanghai Community International School (SCIS) which runs through the school or the Juilliard collaboration at The British International School Shanghai (BISS). Both schools offer ample opportunities for children to participate in performance-based arts from the early years up until they graduate when they are eighteen.

However, what exactly does Performance Arts encompass? The BISS Principal Dr Neil Hopkin explains that the Arts is a broad term which includes the three elements of music, dance and drama: “The arts are an inclusive term, but they are all united through performance. No rehearsal can generate the adrenaline that is equivalent to that of performing in front of an audience of 500 people. That notion of performance is embedded within all the three strands and unites everyone involved in a commonality. Whether an actor, dancer or musician they are all joined by performance.”



We later talked with the Head of Dance at BISS to learn more about their performance-based programmes and student experiences. Natasha Manley, Head of Dance at BISS explains that “Creating, interpreting and improvising are at the core of the Juilliard-Nord Anglia Performing Arts Programme. Every experience in the classroom, studio or theatre teaches students to act independently and use their bodies to create and innovate at that moment.” At BISS the Juilliard curriculum begins in the early years, and that thread runs throughout the school.

At BISS, pupils are practising performance at a very young age, which is a theme of the Juilliard programme. It begins in Early Years where children learn to dance and even ballet from a young age. Angelina, a 6-year-old student at BISS, explains that she loves to dance just because it is “fun.” It gives her a sense of fearlessness that begins at a young age. Dr Neil Hopkin explains when watching a recent recital that he is very rarely urged to take a picture, but the performance was so moving that he felt compelled to do so, to show the artistic director - “Look how far they have come.” Juilliard is central to uniting the three strands through performance. “If you are a dancer and I am an actor, we have a common dialogue, and we have a shared journey.” There is that sense of community within the artistic sphere which gives students a sense of place and a greater sense of purpose.

Through Performing Arts at both the Shanghai Community International School (SCIS) and The British International School Shanghai (BISS), children learn to communicate effectively and connect with others intellectually and emotionally. With performance and repetition, children acquire skills such as poise, focus and overcoming anxiety, best preparing them for presenting, communicating and leading in the future. Dr Hopkin explains that performance cannot be “manufactured”. “It does not matter whether you are a dancer or an actor, they are all united by the “commonality of performance.”



The Juilliard School began in New York, and for nearly a century Juilliard has trained the artists who compose the elite corps of the performing arts community in the United States, with students including Miles Davis and James Levine. Through the study of music, dance, and drama (which encourage experimentation, occasional failure, lateral thinking) students can stretch or surpass the boundaries of traditional education. Now the ideas have spread to China and particularly Shanghai as well as having a specialised Juilliard school in Tianjin.

Performing Arts can encourage children to explore their emotions, expand their imagination and help them develop their own, unique voice. Thirteen-year-old BISS student Asia Carra explains, “You are trained to be on stage and you are used to it. So even when you are talking to new friends, you do not stutter as much, and you are not scared. Therefore, you feel better about yourself.” Each discipline - dance, music or drama - engage a child’s brain, body and emotions in different ways to encourage their confidence and find the joy in self-expression.



At SCIS, the arts programme is robust and well-rounded and fuelled by teachers who are as passionate as they are talented and knowledgeable about their subject. It is very much married to their rich IB programme and encourages its students to be risk-takers in a global community. Being a risk-taker is a significant facet of Performance Arts and having the confidence to continue when perhaps they did not perform as well as they believed they could. They have that necessary confidence to pursue and practise to overcome these minor obstacles and progress as individuals.

The theatre is a practical subject that encourages discovery through experimentation, risk-taking and the presentation of ideas. The theatre course offered by SCIS is multifaceted and gives students the opportunities to actively engage in theatre as creators, designers, directors and performers. In a recent production of James and the Giant Peach by SCIS Pudong, the actors and actresses collaborated as a team with those off stage. It emphasises working both individually and collaboratively as part of an ensemble. Students through productions will explore, learn, discover and collaborate to become autonomous, informed, skilled theatre-makers and most importantly make friends who share the same passions. Emily William at SCIS explains. “There are numerous opportunities to participate in performing arts which can play a critical role in helping students develop their self-confidence. Performing Arts offers children a safe, structured environment for skill development and self-expression. They also provide opportunities for students to share what they can do.”

There are a variety of roles that a student can participate in through Performing Arts. This is explained succinctly by 15-year-old dance enthusiast Bruce Na as he explains, “At BISS I am studying my IGCSE courses, one of which is Drama. I have begun to learn about set design and the importance of teamwork between those that design the set and the importance of lighting.” The great thing about BISS and SCIS is that the opportunities are there and if a student wishes to go further as Bruce has demonstrated there are many opportunities at the respective schools to fan the flame of creativity.

Performing Arts also helps to build a sense of empathy and compassion which helps give students the crucial skills of understanding diverse points of view. SCIS teacher Emily William explains, “When students create, rehearse and perform they get to explore different ways of expressing themselves and see how people react to those expressions. Performing Arts offers children a chance to explore different identities and experiment with different means of communication.” Experiences such as embodying characters, portraying an emotion physically, and singing another person’s lyrics, illustrate how music, dance and drama each accomplish this differently.

BISS student Asia Carra has used Drama to understand different cultures. “You have to play different characters and sometimes you find one of these characters that applies to yourself. Drama can allow you to explore different sides of your personality.” Learning to appreciate and engage in dance and drama from different cultures, communities and traditions is an essential component in helping children develop into a true global citizen.

At SCIS one of the central features of the performing arts programme is the capacity to show the extraordinary and the universal simultaneously. This helps students discover who they are as individuals and prepare to fit into the wider community around them.



Dr Hopkin elaborates further that in their performances at BISS they have 5-year-olds performing alongside 18-year-olds and that this develops the sense of community through the school and unites everyone regardless of age through the medium of performance.

As well as building a sense of community, more importantly, it can improve students’ health through the physical education aspect. The Performing Arts help children with body control, awareness and fitness, encouraging positive lifestyle choices and helping to inculcate the habits of health and wellbeing. SCIS teacher, Mrs William explains “In my experience, the performing arts are a fun way to help all kids develop overall body awareness and movement skills. Activities like dance and drama require students to become aware of their body position, how their bodies move, and where their bodies are in space. This type of awareness transfers to any other activity that requires coordination.”

Bruce Na from BISS explains that you have a better understanding of flexibility and that understanding helps to reduce injuries. It also builds muscle strength and allows him to run faster in athletics events. We live in a technological age where many children would rather lose themselves in a computer game, but Bruce chooses to lose himself in dance which is a healthier choice. He explains that his tastes are growing all the time: “I began to dance because of a love of K-Pop, but now my love of performance has progressed into drama, breakdancing and hip-hop.”

At BISS and SCIS they do not expect every student to become an actor or actress, but it is about building confidence through performance at an early age. The power that these children get from Performing Arts instils a self-confidence that they can use to their benefit throughout life.