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Ballet in China

CCTV.COM (11.30 2003 11:09)


    Ballet made its debut in China in early 19th century Shanghai. China had suffered a blow during the Opium War, and Shanghai had its beginnings in an age of both humiliation and development. Western powers established concessions (鈥攍eased territories鈥) in this city. The Russian immigrants held ballet performances and opened ballet schools.

    Madam Dai Ailian, born in 1916, was an overseas Chinese. After studying at one of London's renowned dance academies, she returned to her homeland in 1940. Dai Ailian employed a basic ballet training method for her students. Today there is a bust of Dai Ailian on display at the British Royal Dance Academy to honor her contribution to popularizing this art.

    After the new People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, the former Soviet Union sent several ballet troupes to visit the mainland. Their performances helped to familiarize Chinese audiences with this art form. As a by-product of the political relationship of the two countries at the time, Russian ballet began to exert a positive influence on China's local talent.

    In 1954, the first professional center for studying dance鈥擳he Beijing Dance School (later known as The Beijing Dance Academy)鈥攚as established in China. Ballet experts from the former Soviet Union鈥擸ealina and Gusev鈥攚ere the school's artistic directors, and trained the first group of Chinese ballet students. 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 New China first focused on introducing traditional western ballets. In the 60's, Chinese artists began to explore the idea of combining western ballet technique with Chinese themes. The results, one 'red,' and one 'white', are now standard repertoire for Chinese ballet artists: 'The Red Detachment of Women,' and 'The White-haired Girl.'

    China stepped into a unique historical period鈥攖he Cultural Revolution. Ballet was first classified and criticized as 'the weed of capitalism.' But later, when this art form was discovered as a tool that could promote political ideologies, ballet grew rapidly in popularity.

    National Ballet of China

    Now we come to the National Ballet of China, which was founded in 1959 and now ranks among the world's top 10 ballet companies.

    In these very studios, generations of NBC artists have sweated and strived to perfect this art. Over the past decades, the NBC has made some outstanding artistic achievements presenting western and Chinese, classical and contemporary ballet. However, they did have their rough times鈥攆or years the NBC was under-funded and over-aged. During this period, the only reward for the dancers seemed to be art itself. Despite the difficulties, the artists didn't fail in devoting themselves body and soul to their career. They became the early pioneers of China's unique ballet style.

    This is a typical morning for the NBC dancers. Their bodies are waking up as they listen to a melodious piano accompaniment and go through their daily basic skill training. Over the last ten years, the company has initiated a series of reforms, especially in administration. The troupe has actively recruited young dancers, and now the average age of NBC dancers is a lithe and lively 22. Their repertoire has also been fleshed out. Ms. Zhao Ruheng, once a dancer herself, took over the NBC in 1993. As always, she still cherishes a deep affection for this art form and this career.

    The National Ballet of China gathers top dancers from around the country. Almost all of them are graduates of the Beijing Dance Academy having six to eight years of professional training. NBC dancers are now internationally acclaimed for their solid classical ballet training, an all-around artistic sensitivity, and a delicate style. Among them, a good number of world class dancers have emerged and many have taken home medals from prestigious international ballet competitions, including those held in Varna, Moscow, Paris, and Tokyo.

    The NBC attaches great importance to international communication. The company regularly invites world famous ballet masters to work with the troupe, training the dancers and rehearsing new pieces. The NBC has toured over 30 countries and regions. Although these tours have brought new life to the ballet company, this new openness has at the same time been a Pandora's Box of problems. In the past, especially in the late 80s and early 90s, some of the more gifted dancers went abroad, leaving behind a troupe of inexperienced youngsters and over-the-hill veterans. How does the NBC respond to this challenge today?

    Rehearsing pieces is another part of the NBC dancer's daily routine. The day we visited, the choreographers and dancers were busy rehearsing a Chinese folk ballet, called 'Raise the Red Lantern'. Since its establishment, the company has treasured both outstanding western classical ballets as well as the pieces in their Chinese repertoire. Classical works such as Swan Lake, Le Corsaire, Giselle, Don Quixote, Sylvia, etc. have laid a solid foundation in classical ballet for the dancers and helped them mature in their skill and artistic style.

    Zhu Yan and Sun Jie, leading NBC dancers, are rehearsing the 'pas de deux' part of the 'Raise the Red Lantern' ballet. They are star dancers and very popular with Chinese ballet lovers. Zhu is acclaimed for the flavour of authentic western classical ballet in her performance. And Sun has been shining on stage as the No.1 male dancer for years.

    In recent years, the company has produced many successful pieces, such as the Chinese version of 'The Nutcracker' which reworks a traditional Christmas ballet into a Chinese plot that connects with a Chinese audience, 'Raise the Red Lantern'鈥攁 ballet rendition of Zhang Yimou's film, and 'Butterfly Lovers'鈥攁 Chinese Romeo and Juliet legend. The company is also quite progressive, and has experimented with different contemporary styles in ballets like 'The Rite of Spring', 'Serenade', 'Concerto', 'The Last Four Songs', and so on.

    In the National Ballet of China's 40-year history, numerous pieces have been staged, Chinese and western, classical and contemporary. Even though not all of them have been captured and preserved on video, they surely have left deep impressions on those who attended each performance.

    Chinese Folk Ballet

    If only one piece needs to be mentioned when talking about Chinese folk ballet, then it will surely be 'The Red Detachment of Women'. These pictures document some real-life stories about this piece's beginnings鈥攈ow the dancers once lived for months in military camps to learn how to practice swords in order to portray the soldiers vividly on stage.

    'The Red Detachment of Women' was the first and most successful large-scale Chinese ballet, with both the theme and content reflecting a very unique Chinese style.

    Adapted from a movie with the same name, 'The Red Detachment of Women' tells a story about an impoverished girl, Wu Qionghua, who escaped from the tyranny of an oppressive landlord, joined the Red Army, and later grew up to be a distinguished revolutionary solider.

    Although the storyline of this ballet seems a little bit out-of-date today, it still possesses its original charm. The piece is a model example of the successful combination of western ballet technique with Chinese folk dancing. The two styles are melded seamlessly within one piece, and it never fails to impress the audience with a natural flow of body language supported by intense emotions. '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.

    For four decades, 'The Red Detachment of Women' has been staged thousands of times and now still draws enthusiastic audiences to the theatre. A permanent part of the National Ballet of China's repertoire, this performance is now called the 'Red Classic'. The Poly theatre's March show was the most recent performance, and it was another big success. Maybe for some of the first-timers who attended, it was a completely new experience. But for most of the Chinese in the audience, it was just another re-view of the classic, and a chance to linger in memory lane recalling times in younger days when they had watched the same piece.

    Chinese Ballet Education

    The grandeur and glory of dancers on stage is backed by painstaking exercises at the bar, day in and day out, and year after year. Ballet is the kind of art that requires extremely tough training. It is no wonder that some people call it a cruel art.

    The Beijing Dance Academy was former known as The Beijing Dance School. It was founded in 1954. One of the academy's major programs, the ballet department was established with direct help from Russian experts when the newly-founded People's Republic of China started its dance education. The department has two programs: the ballet performance program and the ballet education program. Because of the long-term input a ballet career requires, choosing ballet as one's major often means a life-long commitment. What draws these boys and girls into the ballet classrooms? What dreams do they cherish? And moreover, what are their plans for developing their careers after graduation?

    For its nearly 50 years of history, this department has been proud of the talents it has produced鈥攖hose who are dancing, those who do choreography for China's ballet troupes, as well as those teaching students in various ballet education positions.

    After an entire morning's practice, the students step out the classroom for noon break. And some day in the future, they will walk out of the gate of this school to their future careers, on or maybe far away from the performing stage.

    These sophomores are taking the 'Western Folk Dancing' class. Introduced from the Russian ballet school, this course has become a traditional one for the Ballet Department of The Beijing Dance Academy. And actually this is just one of the signs of the Russian school's heavy influence on Chinese ballet education. As said before, the Ballet Department of The Beijing Dance Academy was established with direct help from Russian ballet experts. In the very beginning, the ballet program received everything from the Russian ballet school, including the syllabus, teaching materials and teaching methodology, etc.

    The development of the Ballet Department of The Beijing Dance Academy shares a similar story with that of the National Ballet of China. Since the 60s, Chinese ballet education began to turn to Chinese art and literature for nourishment. To attend the courses offered by The Classic Chinese Dance Department is a 'specialty' unique to the Ballet Department of The Beijing Dance Academy.

    After the Cultural Revolution, when China re-opened its doors and began to reform, the development of China's ballet education also had a fresh start. All different styles of ballet worldwide were learned and a Chinese ballet education system was gradually formed. The department has also kept up an active academic exchange with their international counterparts. Famous international artists are regularly invited to teach at the academy. For example, the artistic director of The Houston Ballet, Mr. Ben Stevenson, has been a visiting instructor at the academy several times and has been appointed as honorary professor of the department. Furthermore, there are teachers from France and Great Britain, as well as Spain, Russia and Denmark, etc. The department can learn advanced teaching content and methodology from these international academic exchanges. As for the students, this helps to keep their minds open, and provides them with dynamic training in diverse styles of ballet.

    During the four years' program, the students here receive a systematic education. Take the 'repertoire course' for example: western classical ballets, Chinese ballets, and modern dance are all offered to the students. A 'Pas de Deux Course' is available for students with special interest and talent in this field. Besides dancing classes, a variety of courses are also offered to supplement the student's all-around knowledge鈥搒uch as 'Ballet History', 'Music Appreciation', 'Dancing Works Appreciation', as well as Chinese, English, History, etc. Dancing skills themselves, no matter how advanced, are far from being enough to make an excellent ballet dancer. Ballet, in a way an aristocratic art form, calls for all-around and high-standard artistic cultivation. These students, young and talented, are the future of China ballet.


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