A mixture of Soviet classics and patriotic ideologies … National Ballet of China
The National Ballet of China has been a barometer to the changing fortunes of its country: it imported Soviet ideas before forging its own patriotic style, weathered the Cultural Revolution and adapted to the changing ideologies of state control and the free market – and is now a growing presence on the world stage.
Like many national ballet companies, the National Ballet of China grew from foreign imports taking root in native soil. It was founded on the last day of 1959 as the Experimental Ballet Company of the Beijing Dance School, a school which had itself been founded only in 1954. Two principal figures influenced both school and company. One was the “mother of Chinese ballet” Dai Ailian, founder of the Beijing Dance School and one of the ballet company directors. The other was Pyotr Gusev, a former director of the Kirov (now Mariinsky) Ballet; he instituted the Russian training system as the company’s technical foundation.
Initially, the repertory was built on the Russian model (Swan Lake was their inaugural production). When relations between China and the USSR broke down in 1960, Gusev (like many other Soviet artists) returned to Russia; but a number of Russia-trained dancers also returned to China, fortifying the influence of the Soviet ballet style. In 1964, British ballerina Beryl Grey was the first westerner to work with the company, staging Les Sylphides. But increasingly, Chinese social and national themes came to the fore, most famously in the agitprop Red Detachment of Women (1964), which was made at the suggestion of the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai.
On political point … Red Detachment of WomenAfter 1966, political involvement in the ballet became far more direct. Jiang Qing – wife of Chairman Mao and one of the Gang of Four who spearheaded the decade-long Cultural Revolution which attempted to purge Chinese culture of bourgeois tendencies and “rightist” thinking – took direct control of the company, sidelining Dai Ailian. The repertory dwindled to just two sanctioned ballets – The Red Detachment of Women and The White-Haired Girl – and the company travelled in a punishing schedule around the country, often on foot and carrying their own baggage.
Following the arrest of Madame Mao 10 years later, the company began to reform and grow as China began to open its cultural and economic doors. Ailian returned as director (1976–80) and then continued as artistic adviser, and the company began to invite overseas guests and to tour abroad. They accelerated in this direction under Zhao Ruheng, a former company dancer who, as artistic director from 1994 to 2009, negotiated huge transitions from state-socialist ideologies to free market ones. Under her enterprising leadership the company has a number of modern ballets, and toured internationally, staking its claim on the international stage. Since 2009 the company has been led by another former company dancer, Feng Ying.
Watching the National Ballet of China
For most of its history, the repertory fell into two distinct categories, neatly summed up by Madame Zhao as “the red and the white”. The white ballets were traditional classics such as Swan Lake and Giselle, and the red were the revolutionary Chinese ballets epitomised by The Red Detachment of Women but including many other patriotic ballets over the years, such as Yellow River (2000).
But as China grew on the international stage, so did its ballet company, which considerably broadened its range to include more modern ballets from around the world – by George Balanchine, William Forsythe,Roland Petit and others – and in 2008 even collaborated on Bahok, a contemporary dance piece by British choreographer Akram Khan.
A new strand of Chinese ballet has also emerged in the last decade, recently with The Peony Pavilion (2008) but most famously with Raise the Red Lantern (2001). Unlike Red Detachment, the new ballet was a heritage project rather than a revolutionary one, mythologising the past rather than the future: its setting is feudal China, its heroine an imperial concubine. The new ballet, too, drew on a mix of ballet with more traditional Chinese arts and costumes, from folk dance and Chinese opera. It was a big international hit – though celebrated more abroad than at home, where it was sometimes criticised as retrogressive.
The current artistic director is Feng Ying, with Wang Quanxing as deputy. Wang Caijun is the répétiteur. The company has its own orchestra, directed and conducted by Zhang Yi.
When Madame Mao controlled the company she prohibited foreign ballet terms: the attitude became “the stance of the heron”, the arabesque became “spreading your wings in the welcome breeze”. She also banned certain steps – the pas de basque and the entrechat – on the grounds that they were “anti-revolutionary”.
In their own words
“Our country is now rising in the world, and our ballet company would like to go with it.” – Zhao Ruheng, interview with Alison Dakota Gee, New York Times, 1998
“We’ll still follow our existing policy of ‘walking on three legs’ … The first leg is the repertoire of the familiar 19th-century classics […] The second leg is the creation of Chinese ballets which can reflect our own individual Chinese culture and sensibility […] The third leg is the repertory of more contemporary 20th-century classics.” – Feng Ying, interview with Kevin Ng, ballet.co.uk, 2009
“The history of ballet in China is not long, but it has gone through a lot because China is not like other countries. Its history has made us who we are. We did not replicate the west. Chinese ballet tells its own stories.” – Zhao Ruheng, interview with Connie Young, CBS News, 2011
New directions … Raise the Red Lantern
In other words
“The National Ballet of China has historically been split between two traditions: the classics imported from Soviet Russia and the ideological fairytales enforced by Madame Mao. Between Swan Lake and The Red Detachment of Women there’s been little middle ground. But the company is now forging its own identity and Raise the Red Lantern heads its new repertoire.” – Judith Mackrell, Guardian, 2003
“Pushing against all preconceptions, the company’s artistic director, Zhao Ruheng, is intent on rewriting – or should that be ‘re-righting’? – history.” – Allen Robertson, Los Angeles Times, 2005
“I make no bones about my admiration for the National Ballet, and my belief that great things in classical ballet have already been achieved, and that greater innovations and artistry will come from China.” – Clement Crisp, Financial Times, 2007
“The dancers have an exceptional poise and clarity, if dramatically a little reticent.”
– You’ll be in line with general critical consensus.
“Shouldn’t they do more Chinese stuff?”
– Heritage ballets such as Raise the Red Lantern and The Peony Pavilion sell well to western audiences, but at least grant them the leeway to stage other ballets, old and new. After all, Swan Lake is as much part of the company history as Red Lantern.
The other main Chinese ballet company is the Shanghai Ballet.
The National Ballet of Cuba is another company which imported teachers and techniques from Soviet Russia.
Now watch this
A good selection of clips from across the whole repertory
First part of The Red Detachment of Women
Sylvia, a revival of a 1979 production by French dancer Lycette Darsonval
John Cranko’s Onegin
Raise the Red Lantern
Bahok, with Akram Khan Company
Where to see National Ballet of China next
See the National Ballet of China website for performance dates.