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'Bright Red Star' gets the ballet treatment in Shanghai

By Zhang Kun in Shanghai | China Daily | Updated: 2018-10-08 07:05
Wu Husheng (center), a principal dancer with Shanghai Ballet, plays the lead role of a young revolutionary in Bright Red Star. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Ballet dancer Wu Husheng, who is used to playing princes, emperors and dukes, will take the role of a young revolutionary in Bright Red Star. This original production of the Shanghai Ballet will premiere at the Shanghai International Dance Center on Oct 24.

This is a ballet tailor-made for Wu, the lead star dancer of the Shanghai Ballet, says Zhao Ming, the director and choreographer of the play.

The story of Bright Red Star is familiar to many in China, thanks to the 1974 movie of the same name.

The hero in the movie, Pan Dongzi, is a teenage boy, and son of a Red Army officer.

When his father leaves home for the battlefield, the landlord returns to the village and ruthlessly exploits the peasants who had forced him out, killing Dongzi's mother alongside others, and burning his house.

After his mother's death, Dongzi joins guerrilla fighters to kill the former landlord.

Then he followed his father to become a member of the Red Army to fight the Japanese army in the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression.

In the latest production, Zhao tells the story from the point of view of a grownup Dongzi, when he is a soldier on march in a platoon, and his previous experiences come up in a series of flashbacks.

Zhao worked closely with Wu, the lead principal dancer of the Shanghai Ballet, to take full advantage of his personal style and techniques.

Speaking about how Wu - who plays Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake, the Prince of Denmark in Hamlet, and the Tang emperor in Echoes of Eternity - took to the role, Zhao says: "Usually he dances aristocratic roles, in grace and dignity, which is very different from the posture of a soldier. "But once we found the right expression, the ballet turned out to be better than Chinese folk dance in the portrayal of the soldiers' spirit."

Since his graduation from Shanghai Dance School in 2003, Wu has been a dancer with the Shanghai Ballet, where he took the lead in a series of productions. And he says that, although he is working with Zhao for the first time he is impressed with the logic in his choreography.

"He didn't use exaggerated expressions," says Wu.

"Instead, he built the narrative smoothly, so that we dancers can put our own feelings in, and comfortably follow it to the climax when we have the emotional catharsis."

Meanwhile, an 18-year-old dancer Yan Qingchen will play the teenage Pan Dongzi in the flashbacks.

Speaking about the hurdles he faced, Zhao says that one of the greatest challenges he faced is to create a convincing narrative with two dancers on stage simultaneously as the same character.

In a very emotional scene, the young Dongzi and his mom bid farewell to his father.

"I struggled with this," says Zhao.

"But eventually I decided to ask my dancers to act with their limbs in minimal movements."

Speaking about the work, Zhao says that it features contemporary aesthetics and uses a modern dance vocabulary and expressions.

"It is a contemporary interpretation of a revolutionary theme, different from traditional revolutionary ballets such as The White Haired Girl or Red Detachment of Women."

Both the White Haired Girl and Red Detachment of Women were premiered in 1964, and today remain popular repertoires of the Shanghai Ballet and the National Ballet of China, respectively.

Ballet, as a Western dance form, has unique aesthetics and expressions.

The White Haired Girl and Red Detachment of Women are both successful in combining folk dance, music and other Chinese artistic elements with those of ballet.

Ballerinas take the lead role in both productions, as traditional ballet usually does.

However, in Bright Red Star, male dancers are the highlight - not just Wu as the hero, but the whole group of more than 40 male dancers from Shanghai Ballet.

Speaking about the cast, Xin Lili, the director of Shanghai Ballet, says: "The production features a total of almost 90 actors, all of whom are contract dancers with Shanghai Ballet.

As for the decision to stage the show, she says: "It is our mission as Shanghai Ballet to take the good stories from our culture, and tell them to the widest public, at home and abroad."

For Zhao, the ballet is not is first encounter with the story.

About 20 years ago, he created a Chinese folk dance production of Bright Red Star featuring Shanghai's celebrity dancer Huang Doudou. It was his first dance theater production and won a series of national awards.

Asked why he is tackling the subject again, he says: "In the new production I want to show my understanding of dance theater which comes from 20 years of work and experience."

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