The Washington Ballet, dancing its way through China, gave many audiences their first look at contemporary dance. The company introduced an eclectic blend of modern, classic, abstract and baroque ballet to a nation with one of the oldest dance traditions.
The Chinese are "very curious about our ballet," company director Mary Day said, "a bit astounded by the newness of what they are seeing." In the resort city of Hangzhou, she noted, the ballet was the first company to perform there in seven years. At the new 2,000-seat theater, the top price for tickets was the equivalent of $1.40.
Throughout the recently completed 21-day tour, Day said, she was moved by all the crowds who wanted to see the company and couldn't. "They wait for our bus to see if they can get a ticket . . . So many are turned away. There are just so many people everywhere."
In Shanghai, a Chinese official told Day, "We need your contemporary dance. Ballet in China is losing its audience as people tire of the old story classics."
A few notes from this cultural odyssey:
* Mishaps were minor. But dancer Brian Jameson injured his back in Shanghai, forcing the cancellation of two ballets in which he performs. The show went on with a change of program, and Jameson went to the hospital -- for acupuncture. "Eight long needles were stuck into my back, then electrodes pumped current through the needles for about 15 minutes," he said. "It wasn't comfortable."
* Chinese officials in Washington suggested the company not perform any piece with erotic content, or, as choreographer Choo San Goh put it, "We were given guidelines." The programs listed "Pas de Deux (to be announced)" and "We sort of sneaked in 'Momentum,' " said Goh. "Eroticism depends on the person who sees it. Anything can be erotic."
The "Pas de Deux" drew a restrained response from the audiences, most of them predominately male and young. As danced by Cynthia Anderson and John Goding in sleek bodysuits, the piece is a sinewy, suggestive intertwining of two bodies to a Prokofiev score.
It was difficult to know if the audiences were shocked. The dancers waited for the reaction in the Chinese-language reviews. But not one of the seven critics who reviewed the company mentioned the "Pas."
* The company travels light, if you don't count the 800-pound floor brought along. There were 20 dancers, four staff members and a production crew of three. Among those accompanying the group were Joan Clark, the wife of former Interior secretary William Clark, and Alexine Jackson of Potomac. She caused a stir at customs when an official, seeing her name on the passport, assumed she was pop star Michael Jackson's sister. "Very popular here," he kept repeating.
The floor, a black cover taped over the stages to provide a consistent surface, could be rolled up between shows. There also were two trunks of costumes, two trunks of shoes (22 pairs per dancer), a trunk of fabric and sewing supplies, a trunk of first-aid gear and a trunk of ice packs for injuries.
* And then there was the wardrobe mistress, Patricia Ann Blum, who said she loves her job of washing and mending costumes on tour. She used hotel bathtubs to launder leotards, tights and costumes. If the leotards didn't dry, dancers wore them damp. In Shanghai, Blum put up a clothesline across the theater parking lot, although the management stipulated that it had to come down before the audience arrived.
"I could write a book about washing ballet laundry around the world," said Blum. China was the Washington Ballet's sixth foreign tour in three years.
* Chinese hospitality never failed. When the ballet departed Peking, a dozen Chinese hosts -- led by Hsu Zhang, former minister of culture at the embassy in Washington -- were at the airport to say goodbye. When the troupe walked into the second-tallest hotel in China, the deluxe Jinling in Nanjing, the hotel staff lined up in the lobby to applaud.
For Goh, China was a family reunion. Choo Hui, a brother he had not seen for 30 years, came to Peking for the company's premiere. The brother, who left the family home in Singapore when Choo San, the youngest of 10 children, was 3, lives in Chungking and works for the Foreign Economic Relations and Trade Bureau. Two sisters -- both ballet teachers -- flew in from Singapore and Vancouver.
Although audience response was muted, Goh said he "could feel the enthusiasm and the curiosity."
Many of the dancers could feel China, too. Janet Shibata found "the very mass of the buildings in Peking emanates such power and control," while Nanjing was marked by "old-world mystery" and an "unreal" calm. Shanghai, she said, felt like Manhattan.
Devon Carney, on loan from the Boston Ballet, toured China in 1980 with the Boston, the first foreign company to perform in China since 1949. "The Chinese still stare at us because they are curious," he said, but added, "Five years ago they glared at us." Carney noted another change: classical ballet dancers in Nanjing wanted to learn breakdancing.
For Day, the five-city tour last month gave her a sense of China's community spirit. "Everywhere, these vast changes are happening so fast. People are constantly met with situations they don't know how to handle. But you have this sense of accord in the people for what is being done for them," Day said. "All the people have a glow, a happiness, and you feel it. It's a happiness that comes from pride in what one is doing, I think." From a sense of purpose. Everyone works."