China Ascendant

National Ballet of China makes its mark on the international stage.
Published in the Dec 2005/Jan 2006 issue.

Zhu Yan as the Second Concubine in Raise the Red Lantern

Courtesy of Sarah Silver

National Ballet of China’s Raise the Red Lantern, the full-length ballet that recently toured four U.S. cities, an arabesque that collapses like a sigh reveals the heartbreak of a daughter sold into marriage in feudal China. The hard officiousness of a palace guard is expressed in a jeté that clips, rather than soars, and the finely articulated movements of Peking Opera set the stage for forbidden romance. The story and richly decorative sets and costumes are based on traditional Chinese designs and the vocabulary is drawn from Western ballet, but the emotions are universal.

“My dream is to make new languages from Western ballet and Chinese folk dance and culture and use these to express Chinese stories,” says Artistic Director Zhao Ruheng. The company has broken new ground with unique fusions of Western movement and Eastern sensibility, but Zhao and the dancers are quick to note that this is not all they do. NBC has established a reputation as a world-class ballet company performing classics such as Swan Lake with technical brilliance and emotional clarity as well as excelling in the neoclassical and contemporary genres. Since China opened its doors to the West, the troupe has enthusiastically soaked up the best that the international dance scene has to offer, while still remaining true to its roots as a company based in a culture that dates back millennia.

Like the company she leads, Zhao, whose life has been intertwined with the NBC company and school for 50 years, has experienced enough dramatic triumph, hardship and renewal to drive the plot of a full-length ballet herself. At age 11, Zhao left home when she was chosen to attend the Beijing Dance School (now Beijing Dance Academy) just a year after it opened in 1954. Classes in China’s first professional school were led by Russian teachers, including Pyotr Gusev, a celebrated teacher, dancer and contemporary of George Balanchine at the Maryinsky. In 1959, the company, whose founding dancers were graduates of the school, took to the stage with 19th-century classics, such as Giselle and Swan Lake.

Zhao joined the company in 1961, just as the Russian teachers were forced to leave China when relations with Russia unraveled. China was also in the midst of a famine that would kill an estimated 30 million people. “We had a very difficult time,” says Zhao, “but we never stopped performing.” In the absence of the Russian teachers, the British style seeped in through the influence of London-trained Dai Ailian, the school’s first president. “Swan Lake in 1963 combined the Russian and the English styles,” says Zhao, who quickly rose through the ranks to become one of the youngest principals and a distinguished ballerina.

In 1964, the company premiered its first “Chinese” ballet, The Red Detachment of Women, based on a true story about a slave rescued by a female cadre on Hainan Island. In place of delicate sylphs or wilis was a female army with rifles and grenades. It was an instant hit with both audiences and the communist leadership. “The government said it was a very good ballet,” says Zhao, adding, “Lots of people say this ballet was created by Madame Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife. This is totally wrong.”

During the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976, the notorious Madame Mao did control the company, however, and the dancers, like most of the population, suffered greatly. Madame Mao excised the classics, dictating that only ballets based on revolutionary ideals such as The Red Detachment and The White Haired Girl were acceptable. Performances took place in all kinds of conditions, even outdoors during the dead of winter. The school was closed from 1966 to 1973. Many dancers were sent to work in the countryside, never to return to ballet. Zhao broke her foot and, without adequate medical attention, the injury spelled the end of her days center stage.

With the 1976 death of Mao and the arrest of Madame Mao and other communist leaders (known as the Gang of Four) signaling the end of the Cultural Revolution, the company entered a new era as China began to open its doors to the West. The Stuttgart Ballet toured to China with John Cranko’s Onegin and Romeo and Juliet, inspiring Chinese choreographers to create works based on famous Chinese novels. The Royal Ballet and London Festival Ballet came, as did Mikhail Baryshnikov, Beryl Grey, Margot Fonteyn, Anton Dolin and Rudolf Nureyev, who gave the company his full-length Don Quixote. In 1986, NBC toured the United States for the first time and was coached by choreographers Paul Taylor and Alvin Ailey.

Zhao, who had remained with the company throughout the years, started studying English in the early 1980s and participated fully in the company’s cultural exchanges. “I learned English very late, so I have poor English,” she says. “But I use this poor English to connect with different countries and get information.” Zhao was named executive vice president of NBC in 1993 and artistic director the following year.

The modernization of China forced the arts to change as well. As the country has shifted from a government-controlled economy to a market system, the company has had to find alternatives to government funding. According to Zhao, half of the company’s revenue now comes from ticket sales and donations from individuals and corporations. With a staff of 223 (70 of whom are dancers), NBC has turned to Western concepts of fundraising, outreach and management. “If we think a dancer is not good, we can decide to not [renew his or her] contract,” she says. “Everything we learned from abroad.”

NBC continued to expand its repertoire, adding works by Balanchine and Bournonville as well as contemporary choreographers. When the company needed both another box office hit and a new signature Chinese ballet, Zhao approached Chinese film director Zhang Yimou, who proposed translating his film Raise the Red Lantern to the stage. “Mr. Zhang Yimou wanted to combine traditional Western arts and traditional Chinese arts, Peking Opera and the ballet, to try to find a new way,” says Zhao. The resulting ballet, Raise the Red Lantern, directed by Zhang Yimou and choreographed by Wang Xinpeng and Wang Yuanyuan, has generated mixed reviews but an enormous amount of attention for the company.

The ballet requires not only dazzling ballet technique, but also a familiarity with the movement of Peking Opera and the ability to convey complex and intense emotions. Zhao invited acting coaches from Beijing Film Academy to work with the dancers on their acting and movement coaches to work with them on the arm movements of the Peking Opera. According to the dancers, however, part of the reason they are able to give such moving performances is that they were involved in the creative process. “There is something special about this ballet,” says principal Zhang Jian, who dances the leading role of the second concubine. “When the directors sat down to discuss the creation of this work, the principal dancers were also members of the team. We also participated in all the talks about the plots, about artistic direction.”

Zhao says ballet is a respected profession in China. “It’s not like a sports star or a movie star or a pop music star,” she says, waving her hand dismissively. “But the government supports us well, and we have our own audiences.” Almost 90 percent of the NBC dancers come through the school, and many end up living in apartments next to the ballet building. “We’re like one happy family—a big family,” says principal Jin Jia. “Many of us have been friends since we were children.”

As circumstances in China—and within NBC—continue to evolve, Zhao is convinced that the outflow of dancers to the West is stopping and may even be reversing. “Because we have a very short history, sometimes our dancers think that in China dance is not good enough,” she says. “But even if they go abroad, their heart is still in China.” Zhang agrees, explaining, “It’s 20 years since China opened its doors. Ten years ago, many people wanted to go abroad to have a better life. Now, many Chinese people who live abroad want to return to China, because China has more opportunities.”

Although she jokes about getting old and retiring, Zhao says she plans to continue to lay the groundwork for the future. “I put my heart into the company,” she says. “I hope that it is getting better and better, not only the repertoire but also the [dancers’] lives and the working conditions. My wish is that our dancers will achieve a high level, not just technically, but as artists. This is my dream.”