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Ballet of China: Dance Evolution

By Lisa Traiger
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, September 30, 2005

CHINA HAS a dance tradition that reaches back 5,000 years. Yet classical ballet arrived in China just over a century ago. So, when the Beijing-based National Ballet of China returns to the Kennedy Center on Tuesday (see cover story, Page 33), one installment in the month-long Festival of China, audiences will see ballet that's still in its infancy.

That by no means suggests that the National Ballet of China hasn't risen to Western standards of technique and classicism. For ballet arrived in China on the heels of the 1917 Russian Revolution, when emigre ballet teachers fled east to China. In 1954, Dai Ailian, the Trinidad-born, London-raised student of ballet and modern dance, founded the Beijing Ballet Academy, which grew into what is now called the National Ballet of China in 1959. Today Zhao Ruheng, one of Dai's students and a former ballerina who was sidelined mid-career by a foot injury, oversees this company of 58 dancers. Zhao, who recently responded to questions -- via e-mail because of a heavy touring schedule and the need for a translator -- described how the openness of post-Cultural Revolution China has nourished the NBC.

"As the door of China opened nearly 25 years ago," Zhao said, "our communication and collaboration with the outside world has become more and more frequent. As the director of the company, I was invited many times to major international ballet competitions . . . witnessing numerous successes of the Chinese dancers in those competitions." Zhao and her dancers have also benefited from visits by choreographers and teachers from the West. In recent years, the 45-year-old company has tested itself with the major warhorses of the canon -- "Les Sylphides" and "Sylvia" -- and the neoclassical intricacies of George Balanchine.

But the National Ballet of China is most adept at fusing Western and Chinese forms. "Raise the Red Lantern," which makes its Washington debut Oct. 7, is the most recent example of this stylized melding of ballet and Chinese opera. "To bring this art form to life in China," Zhao noted, "we had to not only bring in original Western ballet works, but also . . . create new ballets reflecting the life and feelings of the Chinese people. This is a highly difficult task for the company because of the huge difference between the two kinds of culture."

Those cultures merge in one of the most famous pieces the NBC has performed, "The Red Detachment of Women," a Maoist propaganda piece from 1964 about a farm girl who joins the workers' revolution. The work is devoid of some classic ballet idioms, like the male-female pas de deux with its lifts and supported turns, because Chairman Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, felt these were not Chinese enough.

Yet today Zhao calls that ballet "a red classic in China, [it] is known and loved by most Chinese people. Combining the vocabulary of ballet and Chinese dance elements at a unique level, it has been a model of ballet among the Chinese audience. This ballet has surpassed the time and its political background, and become one of those art productions lasting forever."

"Raise the Red Lantern" may enjoy the same fate. In 2001 Zhao turned to China's renowned film director Zhang Yimou, who combined brute force, physical cunning and an arsenal of Asian weaponry into the graceful martial arts movie "House of Flying Daggers." For his first foray into ballet Zhang worked with choreographer Wang Xinpeng on the dance language, but the staging is where he pulled out all the stops, re-creating a 1920s feudal household, replete with dysfunctional relationships, a trio of wives and a staunch master. (The red lantern of the title is the signal the head of household uses to beckon concubines to his private chambers.) Saturated with rich visuals, elements of Chinese culture provide recognizable elements -- there's a mah-jongg game, scenes from the Peking Opera and the clanging percussion of a traditional Chinese orchestra.

"Red Detachment" and "Red Lantern" may come from different political perspectives, but they share core values, Zhao says. "These two ballets are all against the devastating persecution the feudalism brought to the Chinese people, especially women. They just described the different ways people fought back."

NATIONAL BALLET OF CHINA -- Mixed repertory featuring excerpts from "Giselle" and "Yellow River," Tuesday and Wednesday. "Raise the Red Lantern," Oct. 7-8. Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company