The Kennedy Center's Festival of China promises rare glimpses of art from half a world away. But Tuesday at the Eisenhower Theater, it was a familiar Western work that offered the biggest surprise, as the National Ballet of China performed a tender and finely detailed excerpt from the French romantic ballet "Giselle."
Founded 45 years ago, the National Ballet of China is still in its childhood compared with many of the venerable ballet companies of the West. Yet the company got off to a solid start with the help of Russian training and leading dance figures such as British star Anton Dolin, who visited Beijing decades ago to teach and stage works.
According to an official with the company, two of Dolin's students staged the version of "Giselle" that the company now performs. On this program, which also included shorter contemporary works, the audience saw only the last half of "Giselle" -- the "white" act, where the ghost of the title figure rises from her grave to dance with the man who broke her heart. But it made one curious to see what the company would do with the complete ballet.
Forget, for a moment, the clunky sound of the dancers' feet. (Is it the Chinese toe shoes? The Eisenhower stage floor?) There was a distinct pulled-up quality to the women, a strength in the midsection that allowed the arms and legs more freedom. What the dancers lacked in softness of the upper body, they made up for in uniformity and crispness.
Equally impressive was the evident care with which they danced this old, sometimes mishandled ballet. Wang Qimin was a particularly poetic Giselle with slender, ribbony arms and supple feet, seemingly linked to this world only by the thinnest of threads. She was eerily remote, yet still woman enough to mime to Li Jun's remorseful Albrecht how he hadn't loved her and how that had made her weep. Just before their final embrace, she patted the air, feeling for him as if she were sightless -- a condition of ghosthood I had not seen before, but it added to the poignancy of the moment.
The clarity found in "Giselle" was also on view in "The Yellow River," a patriotic work that closed the program with an exuberant bang of ballet steps and acrobatic moves. China's Yellow River has long been an inspiration for poets, musicians and other artists; a poem about leading troops across it during the Sino-Japanese War inspired the composer Xian Xinghai to write his "Yellow River Cantata" in 1939. Some 30 years later, Yin Chengzong adapted it as a piano concerto. It is this work, or parts of it, that gave rise to the celebratory ballet by Chen Zemei.
There were some heavy-handed moments -- wave after wave of male dancers bounding into the air in the Chinese splits (appropriately enough), and at another point performing balances and back walkovers straight out of a gymnastics floor routine. The women's sections were more lyrical, less flashy, emphasizing lightness and airy, floating turns that come from that especially strong center of balance. Most of all, it was the dancers' unforced sense of elation that carried this work past its occasional schmaltzy parts (in both the score and choreography).
Two short works filled out the program. Fei Bo's "Once Upon a Time" (incorrectly listed in the program as "Remembrance") was a dance for a man, a woman and a pillow, all three in white, each by turns grabbed, caressed or tossed. The love-hate affair was set to a weepy French ballad, though at the end the mood was abruptly shattered (unintentionally, one suspects) when the woman began whacking her partner with the pillow and the audience broke into laughter.
"Piercing the Heart (Jian Qing)" was a more successful pas de deux, if only because it was less trite and more mysterious and complicated. The title would appear to be a reference to the powerful and reviled wife of Mao Zedong, a leading force in the Cultural Revolution who was imprisoned after that period ended (and Mao died) in 1976. However, the company says that "Jian Qing" is simply the Chinese translation of the title. Wang Yuan Yuan's work pitted a black-clad man with a spear against an elegant woman in white; she had a knowing, fearless air and the piece was more about a struggle of wits and the balance of power than outright violence.
With all the pluses of this evening, the taped music was a giant minus, particularly in "Giselle." This company's appearance should have warranted a live orchestra.
The company performs the full-length ballet "Raise the Red Lantern" tomorrow night and twice on Saturday. All three performances are sold out.