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A man who sets the tone

By Chen Nan | China Daily | Updated: 2022-09-19 08:09
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Zhang and the symphony orchestra of the National Ballet of China perform in the year-end concert at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing in 2016.[Photo provided to China Daily]

Conductor Zhang Yi celebrated his 20th anniversary as the music director of the symphony orchestra of the National Ballet of China with performances of a Chinese version of the ballet classic The Nutcracker, staged at Beijing's Tianqiao Theater from Thursday to Sunday.

This version of the world-famous ballet is called Guo Nian in Chinese, literally translated as "celebrating the New Year". The adaptation moves the story from its traditional setting of Christmas to Spring Festival, a time for family reunions. It also adds traditional cultural elements, such as the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac.

With music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, the Chinese version of The Nutcracker premiered in 2000 and has been staged annually during Spring Festival.

"My story with the National Ballet of China started with Tchaikovsky's music," says Zhang, 50, who became the artistic director of the symphony orchestra of the National Ballet of China in 2002. "I have been working with the company for 20 years and I want to celebrate it with Tchaikovsky's music."

In 1996, Zhang, a teacher in the conducting department of the Central Conservatory of Music, was invited by Zhao Ruheng, then the artistic director of the National Ballet of China, to conduct the company's symphony orchestra for the ballet piece, Swan Lake.

What does the ballet conductor really do? Does the conductor simply lead the orchestra as an accompaniment to the dancing? Or, is the conductor a full participant in the creative process?

Zhang, 24 back then, asked himself the same questions.

Trained to become a classical musician, he learned to play the violin at the age of 5 and graduated from the Central Conservatory of Music with a major in conducting. His whole career was about conducting classical concerts and operas. Ballet was new to him.

As a young student, Zhang watched Swan Lake performed by the National Ballet of China, but he never expected to become a ballet conductor.

Zhao invited Zhang to watch the dancers of the National Ballet of China train, which allowed Zhang to better understand the art form.

One day, when ballerina Zhang Jian danced in the rehearsal room, she cried because her feet were hurt and bleeding. Feng Ying, then the chief training coach of the company, who was also a famous ballerina, stopped the rehearsal and walked to Zhang Jian.

"Can you dance or not?" Feng asked. "Yes," Zhang Jian wiped her tears and continued to dance.

"I was shocked. She was bleeding but she didn't stop dancing. For the first time, I realized that ballet is beautiful but cruel. I started to observe the dancers and tried to capture their movements with musical notes in my head," recalls Zhang Yi.

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