Shanghai Exchange

As four members of the Shanghai Ballet blocked the opening of Jules Perrot’s Pas de Quatre at Shanghai’s Majestic Theatre, a lone cowboy wandered out of a wing. Clad in the bright aqua shirt and black Stetson worn by the male corps in George Balanchine’s Western Symphony, Sacramento Ballet dancer Eric Holzworth sharply contrasted with the Chinese dancers’ pink Romantic tutus. A voice from the back of the theater said, “Well, the Americans have arrived.”


Indeed they had. Ballet traditions and national identities commingled during the tech rehearsal for the May 4 shared program that featured Sacramento and Chinese dancers in Shanghai. That night, Sacramento showed off its Balanchine repertoire, performing the first movement of Western Symphony, the third movement of Scotch Symphony and the pas de deux from Apollo. The Chinese dancers presented all 19th-century works: Company members danced Pas de Quatre and the pas de deux from Grand Pas Classique, and students danced the Rose Adagio from Sleeping Beauty and a pas de deux from Paquita.


Western Symphony
and Scotch Symphony were whirlwinds of complexity compared to Pas de Quatre and the students’ extremely slow-tempo Rose Adagio. The pas de deux from Apollo, danced by Kirsten Bloom and Jack Hansen, looked astonishing following Paquita. After seeing the Chinese dancers’ absolute verticality, Apollo, particularly the well-known “swimming” moment, in which Terpsichore arches her body as her hips rest on Apollo’s upper back and neck, recalled the revelation Apollo must have been at its première in 1928.


Shanghai’s school director, Hang Xin-Yua, had especially wanted his students to see the Balanchine works. His 400-student school follows a strictly Vaganova syllabus which, over the seven years it has to train young dancers, yields a firm technical base, however, the students are not exposed to neoclassical or contemporary ballet.


“The dancers here need to see Balanchine, not just on DVD, but in live performance,” says Hang. “The Balanchine style has such a strong personality to it, and Chinese dancers seldom have chances to see such a strong personality.”


The Chinese students also watched company class and took a Balanchine-based class from Cunningham. Huang Jun Shuang a student at the Shanghai Dance School who took Cunningham’s class and performed in Paquita, says, “Balanchine is so full of rhythm. We focus on the basics and muscle training here at school, but the musicality in Cunningham’s class was faster and much more flexible.”


The Chinese may have been struck by the “personality” and speed of the American rep, but the Shanghai students’ strong technical foundation impressed the visiting dancers.

Sacramento dancer Bobby Briscoe, who formerly danced with The Joffrey Ballet, noticed how the Chinese dancers’ deep pliés and perfect fifth positions allowed them to execute double tours with an entirely different sense of timing from anything he had seen before. 


“Watching and then going out to do Scotch Symphony pushed me technically,” he says. “I’m more comfortable as an artist, but I started thinking about technique more in the moment of performance, instead of hitting marks and being in line.”


Observing the Shanghai dancers and students from the wings gave the Americans more than just a new perspective on technique. Despite the language barrier, many managed to
communicate with their Chinese colleagues, while others focused on the Chinese company’s way of working. The dancers were surprised that Shanghai Ballet Artistic Director Xin Lili stayed in the wings throughout the performance, calling out to her dancers mid-variation.

While language posed an obvious barrier among the dancers, shared knowledge of ballet’s challenges created camaraderie. Sitting in the audience during the tech rehearsal, Bloom found herself rooting for a Shanghai Ballet ballerina working her way through the long series of single-foot relevés in the woman’s variation from Grand Pas Classique.


Almost all of Sacramento’s rep was totally new to Shanghai, especially Trey McIntyre’s Wild Sweet Love, choreographed to songs by Roberta Flack, The Partridge Family and Queen, which was performed as part of the performances Sacramento presented on its own in Shanghai and Beijing. Cunningham and Binda had not planned to bring such a contemporary work to China, but after the McIntyre piece received wild applause at its March première in Sacramento, the directors added it to the tour. 


The Chinese audience, prone to talking and taking photographs during the performance, grew silent during Wild Sweet Love. As the dancers, led by soloist Ilana Goldman, swerved through McIntyre’s almost animalistic movement, everyone, regardless of national background, sat rapt.


And for the Sacramento dancers, the international experience was exhilarating and potentially long-lasting. “The first performance in Shanghai I had a lot of adrenaline for the collaboration,” says dancer Annali Rose Lulebas. “I think this has been uplifting for everyone. We have a renewed sense of energy at the end of a season.”

Clare Croft is a dance writer for the Austin American-Statesman and a PhD student in the Performance as Public Practice program at the University of Texas–Austin.

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