China’s high-energy ballet is on trend

September 23, 2011

Is the National Ballet of China bringing us ballet of the future? Presumably, as China grows its wealth and global ambitions, so will this company and its way of presenting classical Western dance. Let’s brace ourselves.

On the one hand, there was something charmingly old-fashioned about the program the 60-member company performed Thursday at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. (The series ends Saturday.) The two Chinese works — excerpts from “The Red Detachment of Women” from 1964 and “The Yellow River” from 1999 — featured heroic, social-realist ensemble choreography that brought to mind early works by Martha Graham (in, say, “Panorama” and “Sketches from ‘Chronicle’ ”). Fists punched skyward, emotions were exaggerated and, within a few bars of music, indignation or joy could snowball into a mass demonstration.

On the other hand, this company is unabashedly modern. Its approach to ballet — with crisp execution, six o’clock extensions for men as well as women, and the occasional back flip — is in line with current aesthetics. Whether on the stage or in the gymnastics arena (this evening borrowed from both), audiences respond appreciatively to high energy and unwavering form. This troupe has both in spades. It is on the leading edge of the athletic trend in ballet.

Another trend the company is following is dancing to canned music. The crashing cymbals in “Red Detachment,” the shimmering piano concerto in “The Yellow River” and the inflamed enchantment of the second act of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” were taped. This is not a practice that is going to augment any ballet dancer’s artistic development.

I’m not a big fan of trends, and I found the taped music as well as the hard-edged qualities of the dancing more than a little off-putting. This was especially the case with the men. While one can admire the dedication it takes to achieve solid togetherness in the corps, it frequently verged on mechanical. In “The Yellow River,” more than one passage could have fit into a gymnastics routine. It is easier, perhaps, to view dance steps as sport — crush your leg up to your nose and you’ve nailed the pose. But it is far more interesting to see the human behind the step, to glimpse an interior life, the unique expression of an individual, rather than a uniform standard.

It was up to the leading ballerinas to show us a more artful side. Happily, the bland perfection evident throughout the company was softened in each ballet’s leading female interpreter. With her pliant, willowy physique and clear acting, Zhu Yan was especially moving as the peasant heroine with a noble heart in “Red Detachment.” (This ballet also had one of the best stage storms I’ve seen, with hurricane-force sound effects and a chillingly realistic downpour.) And in the excerpt from “Swan Lake” that formed the program’s centerpiece, Wang Qimin’s cool grandeur as Odette was echoed by a contingent of beautiful if reserved corps de ballet swans. Here, the Chinese dancers’ uniformity and polish was most welcome.

These were not roles imbued with distinct personal flavor, however. You didn’t walk out of the theater knowing much about this company beyond its admirable dedication to the externals of ballet. But that’s only part of the art.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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