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Ballet in search of Chinese identity
By Chen Jie (China Daily)
Updated: 2004-11-24 10:03

Pas de deux from "Raise the Red Lantern" between the third concubine starring Zhu Yan and her Peking Opera actor lover by Sun Jie. [File photo]
The National Ballet of China is entering a busy and productive end of year, celebrating the 45th anniversary of its founding.

While its dancers are touring southward with 29 shows to Shanghai, Nanjing, Shenzhen, Hong Kong and Macao, Zhao Ruheng, president and artistic director of the company, is preparing to host an international seminar on the development of Chinese ballet on December 27 and 28, before she heads to Hertfordshire, England to attend the Rural Retreat from January 7 to 9.

In its second year, the Rural Retreat, a think-tank for dancers and directors, attracts 27 dance company heads from North America, Australia, Scandinavia and Russia. Concerning the fast growing fame of the National Ballet of China, director Zhao is also invited to share her views on ballet in 21st century.

She will then move to London for the Fifth Critics' Circle National Dance Awards ceremony hosted by the Royal Opera House on January 20, as the National Ballet of China has been nominated the Best Foreign Dance Company, together with the prestigious Bolshoi Ballet and Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

"It is very surprising but pleasing to know we are nominated," Zhao told China Daily. "It might be the result of our show 'Raise the Red Lantern' in London last November. It was our first visit to London in 17 years and we were unexpectedly well received by audiences and critics there," she said.

Aside from the unexpected nomination at the end of this year, Zhao and her company are celebrating the 45th anniversary of its founding, giving nearly 100 shows all year around in Beijing and other cities.

After performing "Sylvia," the latest co-production with the Opera de Paris, at the Shanghai Grand Theatre on November 16 and 17 to close the 2004 Shanghai International Arts Festival, the National Ballet of China gave two shows of the "Red Detachment of Women" in Nanjing last weekend.

Beginning tonight they will perform "Sylvia" and Balanchine works at the Hong Kong Culture Centre and Macao Culture Centre and "Raise the Red Lantern" and the "Red Detachment of Women" in Shenzhen.

Then they will come back with "Sylvia" and "Raise the Red Lantern" for the 2004 Beijing Dance Festival at the end of December. Concluding its 45th anniversary will be a gala show at the Great Hall of the People on December 29.

From Western to Chinese

In an old and inconspicuous four-storey building of red-brick in southern Beijing, generations of Chinese ballerinas have sweated and strived to perfect this art.

In 1959, the National Ballet of China (originally called the Central Ballet of China) was established on the basis of the Beijing Dance School, the first professional training centre for ballet founded in 1954.

Ballet experts from the former Soviet Union were the school's first artistic directors, and trained the first group of Chinese ballet students including Zhao.

The year 1957 saw "swans" dancing on a Chinese stage: the performance of the classic "Swan Lake" indicated that ballet had formally entered the stage in this country.

The company first focused on introducing traditional Western repertoire. In the 1960s, Chinese artists began to explore the idea of combining Western ballet technique with Chinese themes. The results, one "red" ("Red Detachment of Women") and one "white" ("White-haired Girl") are among the company's typical repertoire.

The "Red Detachment of Women" was the first and most successful full-length Chinese ballet, with both the theme and content reflecting a very unique Chinese style. The dancers even lived for months in military camps to learn swordplay in order to portray the soldiers vividly on stage.

It is said that the "Red Detachment of Women" was a prelude to the exertions of Chinese ballet artists trying to establish a Chinese identity using an essentially foreign art form. The piece has been hailed as a model of the successful combination of Western ballet technique with Chinese folk dancing.

Although the storyline of this ballet seems a bit out-dated, it still possesses its charm and draws enthusiastic audiences to the theatre.

Today the National Ballet of China has caught people's attention by its brand-new productions such as "Raise the Red Lantern" and its rapid rise in fame throughout the world. But few people know of their rough times when for years the company was under-funded and out of date. The only reward then for the dancers seemed to be the art itself.

Despite difficulties, the artists did not fail in devoting their bodies and souls to their career.

Over the last 10 years since Zhao was appointed director in 1993, the company has initiated a series of reforms, especially in administration.

Every year, the National Ballet of China auditions and recruits top dancers from around the country. Most of them are graduates of the Beijing Dance Academy with six to eight years of professional training already completed. The average age of the dancers is a lithe and lively 22.

The ballerinas of the National Ballet of China are now internationally acclaimed for their solid classical ballet training, all-round artistic sensitivity and a delicate style.

While restaging classical works such as "Swan Lake," "Le Corsaire," "Giselle," "Don Quixote" and "Sylvia" every year, Zhao spends much effort in producing new repertoire.

"The classical pieces lay a solid foundation in classical ballet for the dancers and help them mature in their skill and artistic style, but we need new works to broaden the repertoire as well as to guide Chinese audience to taste something more than 'Swan Lake'," Zhao said.

Zhao attaches great importance to international communication, regularly inviting world-famous masters to work with the troupe, training the dancers and rehearsing new pieces, the pursuit of a unique Chinese identity still her goal.

Glaring lanterns

Zhao believes "Raise the Red Lantern," an adaptation by Zhang Yimou from his 1991 movie of the same title, is a milestone in the development of the company and a real test of China's desire for cultural change.

This crossover of genres is part of her search for a Chinese identity more versatile than the regimented heroics in the repertoires produced in the 1950s and 1960s.

Since its Beijing premiere in May 2001, "Raise the Red Lantern" has raised questions about what Chinese ballet is. "Yes, 'Raise the Red Lantern' is controversial. It's an experiment and the experiment continues. Audiences have to learn to broaden their horizons," said Zhao.

Choreographed by Germany-based Wang Xinpeng and Beijing-based Wang Yuanyuan, the mix of dance styles, from Peking Opera, acrobatics to pointe work, may seem too exotic for Eastern and Western palates.

As Zhao says, the experiment continues. The company has produced a Chinese version of "The Nutcracker" which reworks a traditional Christmas ballet into a Chinese plot that connects with a Chinese audience.

Her steps in exploring ballet with a Chinese identity will not stop. Chinese identity is one of the main topics the attendants will discuss at a seminar hosted by the National Ballet of China at the end of December. Meanwhile, a Chinese work which she does not reveal is written into her plan for 2005.

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