Madame Dai Ailian, artistic adviser to the Central Ballet of China, is hesitant to boast too much about the company she helped establish 27 years ago.
"The dancers are just getting settled," she explains in fluent English. "We're visiting 11 cities, it's a very exhausting trip. Touring is hard anyway, getting used to different customs of eating and so on. I cannot say everything has been perfect. But I can say we have had a success because at every performance the dancers have done their best."
Then with a characteristic twinkle, the 70-year-old former dancer adds:
"Besides, we're going to warm Florida before we come here, so I'm hoping we'll do better and better. And the weather here [in Washington] is warmer than in New York. When we get to Washington, I think the company will be in its best form."
The troupe, currently at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of its two-month debut tour of the United States, is due in Washington March 25 for a week of performances at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Programs will include classics of western ballet as well as home-grown ballets based on Chinese themes and more recent western choreography.
Dai was introduced to Washington press yesterday by Chinese cultural counselor Xu Jiaxian at the embassy of the People's Republic of China, where she spoke briefly and fielded questions. The first was, "Can you tell us something about the history of dance in China, and the effects of the Cultural Revolution?"
Dai laughs aloud. "The history of dance in China? You are asking for a four-hour lecture, you know."
Nevertheless, she proceeds to give a neatly distilled overview. "China is a dancing nation . . . The relics of the past show there have been 5,000 years of dance history in China."
Her survey moved quickly to modern times, when the thread of western-style ballet finally entered the tapestry. It began, she says, when the Russian Revolution brought e'migre' ballet teachers from that nation to China. Dai herself first arrived in China in 1940, after studying both ballet and modern dance in England.
"At the time, I didn't know if the Chinese wanted ballet, and I devoted myself to researching Chinese dance, which I felt should have a position in the world," she says. "Then, in 1954, the state decided to support ballet, and ballet masters arrived from Russia to give a five-month teachers' course." That was the start of the Beijing Dance Academy, led by Dai, from which the Central Ballet evolved.
There were hard times yet to come, however. With the advent in the mid-'60s of the so-called "Cultural Revolution," official attitudes toward western-style ballet grew hostile. "All the arts suffered," Dai says. "All the people suffered. It was very tragic, a tragedy for the nation."
This was the period when only two "revolutionary" ballets -- "The Red Detachment of Women" and "The White-Haired Girl," both created in 1964 -- were sanctioned. Moreover, Dai says, Chairman Mao's wife Jiang Quing insisted on interfering personally in dance production and instruction.
"It's only in the last seven years," she says, "that we have returned to classical form. The open policy of [Chinese leader] Deng Xiaoping changed things. Now we can see what is happening elsewhere in the world. And the government pays now for everything -- studies for ballet students, dancers' salaries. We have our own orchestra, our own shoemakers, costumers, designers, carpenters. We have good studios, with good lighting, high ceilings -- so we are a little bit spoiled."
Another consequence of the changed political atmosphere has been an influx of visitors from the western dance world. This is reflected directly in the Kennedy Center programs of the Central Ballet, which include Anton Dolin's "Variations for Four" and Ben Stevenson's "Three Preludes." Both works were staged for the company by their respective choreographers during trips to China in recent years.
Now that a Chinese ballet company has arrived on these shores, does Dai think there will be reciprocal influences passing between the countries?
"Of course. When artists see something good, they grow," she says.
"It's like eating. You like Chinese food, don't you? So do I, but that doesn't stop me from liking to eat salads, too."