When Mikhail Messerer and his 72-year-old mother, Sulammith, began coacing the all but lost art of Russian ballet here in April, they found that understanding their Chinese colleagues was much more difficult than the flying leaps they taught every day at the Peking Dance Academy.
The Messerers -- Russian dancers who defected to the United States last year -- were invited to Peking by the Chinese government to produce the classical Russian ballet "La Bayadere." In selecting them, the Chinese found a way to get around importing culture from arch-rival Russia: Although the Messeerers are masters of the Russian ballat art, they no longer represent the Soviet Union. Most of their troubles here stemmed from language differences. Although dancers everywhere else in the world know international ballet terms, such as arabesque ad pas de deux, the Cultural Revolution in China eliminated those "bourgeois" words, replacing them with Chinese translations.
To make matters worse, the Messerers' Russian translator, who smoothed out their communication with the young dancers, had great difficulty getting through to the piano player, who didn't speak the standard Mandarin dialect.
"She didn't speak Russian, or English, or [Mandarin] Chinese and she didn't even understand the Italian musical terms 'do re mi,'" said Mikhail Messerer, 30, an intense man known by the Russian diminutive Misha. m
How did he communicate with the pianist?
"I waved my arms when I wanted to go faster," he said, his arms spinning like an airplane propeller. "When I wanted to slow it down, I put up my hands like a stop sign. When I got mad, I pounded the table."
When "La Bayadere" opened here in June, it was the first Russian ballet produced in China since the Cultural Revolution started in the mid-1960s. Mao Tsc-tung's wife, Chiang Ching, who dictated the nation's cultural tastes in those years, once complained that "the bondage of Russian classicism . . . enslaved Chinese dancers for decades." Chiang Ching often said she was revolted by the use of an animal -- a black swan -- as the central figure of "Swan Lake," according to one of her biographers.
Except for a few revolutionary ballets produced by Madame Mao, the dance form was banned in China during the decade-long Cultural Revolution. Rampaging gangs of Red Guards broke into ballet schools, destroying musical scores, design sketches, costumes and pianos. Some of China's famed ballet dancers and teachers were sent to the countryside for hard labor.
Now that the upheaval has ended, ballet schools have reopened in Shanghai and Peking, young dancers once again are regularly being recruited and foreign ballet teachers are being invited to speed up the process.
Russian teachers and the Russian tradition dominated Chinese ballet in the 1950s, but that was before the Sino-Soviet split. Even though the Messerers grew up in the Bolshoi and have lived in the United States for just over a year, the Chinese treated them as if they were American dancers. At banquets, they were toasted for promoting friendship between the people and dancers of China and the United States.
"They realize very well," said Misha Messerer, "that there can be no ballet without Russian ballet. It's like talking about Karate without mentioning Japan."
The young dancers taught by the Messerers have been chosen, groomed and succored by the state in exchange for life-time indentured service to the state. The dancers are recruited at the age of 10 by ballet instructors who hold annual auditions in the provinces. Candidates are tested for musical aptitude -- they are asked to sing or perform a native dance -- and for physical stature. The most promising tryouts are said to have perfectly proportioned arms and legs.
Youngsters who pass muster are sent to academies where they receive their education through high school, eat, sleep and train for ballet. Once they graduate, they begin to dance professionally for the school, earning a small wage.
Unlike the prosperous ballet stars of the West and Russia, the best Chinese dancers live modestly, earning no more than $60 a month. Most of them continue to live in the cramped, rudimentary dormitories where they grew up.
One of Peking's most prominent ballet dancers, for instance, lives with his wife and 5-year-old son in a 10-foot by 12-foot dormitory room, nearly half filed by the family bed. They share a bathroom with other families on the floor and cook their meals on a portable propane stove in the cluttered hallway.
The dancers who starred in "La Bayadere" ranged in age from 18 to 20, representing one of the few classes drafted during the Cultural Revolution. In today's China, most ballet dancers are either very young or very old.
On the third floor of the shabby Peking Dance Academy, which was converted to a hospital during the early years of the Cultural Revolution, the Messerers taught the age-old discipline of classical ballet to 14 young women balancing on bars.
On one morning, Sulamith Messerer, a tiny, spry septuagenarian with twinkling eyes, moved from pupil to pupil, adjusting the direction of a heel here, flatterning out upturned toes there. Her son warmed up with a lithe 18-year-old named Tang Ming, lecturing her about holding in her belly. But the mood of excitement evaporated when the pianist arrived without the music.
Among the many frustrations Messerer encountered at the beginning of his stay here was the non-appearance of the young Chinese dancer who was supposed to be his understudy. Whenever Messerer inquired about the dancer, he was told the young man was studying in Houston and would be returning any day. "Later, later,' they kept saying," he recalled.
Until one day when Messerer was chatting with a visiting American in the dining room of the Peking Hotel. "He said to me, 'Hey, did you hear about that Chinese ballet dancer who defected in Houston?'
"Then I understood everything."