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China breaks into Vegas show business; debut comes as country seeks parity at artistic table

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LAS VEGAS, Nev. - An actor in a plush panda suit bounds across the stage with the enthusiasm of a minor league baseball mascot, flanked by acrobats atop bamboo poles, stone-faced kung-fu fighters and over-the-top visual effects rarely seen off the Las Vegas Strip.

"PANDA!" — the first Chinese-produced show to take up a long-term residency on the famous tourist corridor — also takes pains to weave in Chinese folklore and motifs, including sweeping views of an ultra-modern Beijing skyline on giant LCD screens.

The loose, wordless plot needs no translation. The subtext doesn't either: A growing, confident China wants respect, not just for its military or economic prowess, but also for its arts and culture. Experts say shows like the Vegas one are part of an effort in recent years to bring greater attention to China's cultural offerings.

"China is very smart in understanding that arts and culture is how countries come to be defined," said Alicia Adams, the vice-president of international programming and dance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and producer of its Festival of China showcase in 2005.

Produced by the team behind the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening and closing ceremonies, "PANDA!" opened to mixed critical reviews in December and recently added dates through July. It comes after other Chinese shows have led the way to U.S. stages, including two Chinese-produced resident shows in Branson, Mo., and a steady flow of touring Chinese arts troupes at venues across the country.

"I hope that the show provides an opportunity for cultural bonding and shared mutual reference, so that Chinese culture will have a tighter bond with other cultures," said Zhong Min Xu, producer of the Vegas show, answering questions by email through a translator.

While 'PANDA!' is privately funded, China has been sending performing arts troupes to overseas festivals and universities for years, often with backing from its Ministry of Culture. In the mid-2000s, the ministry set the explicit national priority of exporting Chinese culture.

It's an effort, in part, to win hearts and minds at a time when the country's politics vex its neighbours and the superpower across the Pacific. Cultural exchange is just one of the tools in China's campaign to polish its image; foreign aid, trade incentives and educational exchange are some others.

While they've won over friends across the globe, they're not always enough to compensate for policies perceived as heavy-handed, according to China expert Josh Kurlantzick.

"China's own 'hard power' decisions in Asia have undermined whatever it gained in soft power in the 1990s and 2000s," said Kurlantzick, a fellow with the Council for Foreign Relations who wrote a book on China's soft power.

But beyond official diplomacy goals, sending arts into the world is a matter of national pride.

After years of gobbling up Hollywood summer blockbusters and filling arenas for American pop artists, Chinese producers are wondering why their shows don't command as much money and why the cultural exchange is so lopsided.

"It is also a matter of self-respect," said Cathy Barbash, an American arts consultant who specializes in connecting Chinese performers with U.S. audiences. "The Chinese will proudly remind you of their 5,000 years of civilization. They blame the lack of prestige and respect for Chinese culture in part on their 'hundred years of national humiliation,' the period of intervention and imperialism by Western powers and Japan during the 19th and 20th centuries."

Some of the country's earlier exports were large-scale, nationalistic spectacles modeled after similar Communist pageantry in the Soviet Union. It has taken time — and specialists such as Barbash — to fine-tune the flow of shows overseas.

Newer exports are more subtle, diverse and abstract.

"They understand what success is in the wider world," Barbash said, "and what that may mean is that if they want to be respected by the wider world, an evolution has to take place."

The Palazzo casino is gambling that "PANDA!," with its comparatively low-cost tickets, can win over visitors who pay hefty prices to see the renowned acrobatics and showmanship of Las Vegas' seven Cirque du Soleil shows.

"Certainly competing with Cirque has been a goal for a long time," said Alison Friedman, who owns the Beijing-based arts consulting and production firm Ping Pong Productions, "and also reversing the image of 'Made in China' being low quality."

While the gambling industry has increased links in recent years between Vegas and Asia, including luring visitors to Sin City with elaborate Chinese New Year decor and events and playing up baccarat, producers say they want to build up an audience stateside for "authentically Chinese" shows like theirs.

"Art has no borders and we hope audiences will experience a completely different feeling with the show," producer Xu said. "Although 'PANDA!' is the only Chinese show in Las Vegas right now, I truly believe that there will be more Chinese shows in the future."

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