China makes dramatic strides

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Anything to get away from the interminabilities of the English Christmas, or as we probably have to call it, “The Xmas Winter Break”. So, China. The prodigies of sci-fi architecture in Shanghai; the insane traffic (why wait when you can walk or, improbably over-burdened, bicycle against eight lanes of traffic?); the vastness of Beijing, already in the grip of Olympic anticipation; the Great Wall; the endless prodigies of art in the museums. And the present prodigies of the National Ballet of China during its season in Beijing.

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. In its less than 60 years, including those marked by the politicisations of the Cultural Revolution, Chinese ballet has made strides no less amazing than those of the Royal Ballet from its first tender shoots in Ninette de Valois’ 1926 Academy of Choreographic Art.

Chinese classical dancers are admirably well-trained, dramatic, musical, vivid in performance, their academic style marked by exceptional clarity in line, and that harmony of proportion which is the ensign of any true classic expression. (In Wang Qimin they have a young ballerina, as I reported three years ago about her performance in The Nutcracker in Hong Kong, of rarest gifts: exquisite physique, no less exquisite articulation of ballet’s language, and that mystery which can mark a burgeoning talent – I felt it on first seeing the young Ludmila Semenyaka and Altynai Asylmuratova. Ms Wang is of that calibre.)

I attended three revealing programmes during the National Ballet’s December season at its home theatre in Beijing. These suggest the extent and the openness of the National Ballet’s repertory – it contains all the usual Russian classics and the company’s own “classic” stagings that tell of historical antecedents (The Red Detachment of Women); modern work from the west (MacMillan, Petit, Rudi van Dantzig, with Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring promised soon and Natalya Makarova’s Swan Lake with its fourth act by Ashton). The December repertory comprised Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet; Raise the Red Lantern, adapted from Zhang Yimou’s film, which the troupe successfully brought to Sadler’s Wells three years ago; and Roland Petit’s Pink Floyd Ballet. They were danced with verve and a fine appreciation of style, from the Chinese historical and theatrical traditions in Lantern, by way of Cranko’s brightly dramatic neo-classicism, to Petit’s fizzing showbiz extravagance, which was irresistible.

The Romeo was given with designs proposed by the Cranko estate: a veristic set and rather fly-by-night costumes from the Canadian designer Susan Benson, which dutifully frame but do not inspire. I saw the piece twice, delighted by the energies of the company and the expressive force of the principals. Both Zhang Jian (a head-strong girl) and Wang Qimin (borne on a wave of emotion) were Juliets to treasure; Hao Bin (all ardour) and Li Jun (obsessed by his love) were their excellent Romeos. Everything about the company interpretations seemed to me exact, honouring Cranko.

Lantern remains as hugely theatrical as I remembered it from the Wells’ performances. It is most noteworthy for its ability to combine the dramatic forms of Chinese theatre with the conditions in 1920s Chinese life. Concubines, and the sexual tensions implicit in their lives, fire the drama; male brutality shapes its darkest moments; searing pictorial imagery (rape shown by means of a vast red silk cloth; an execution squad smacking red paint on a wall, and creating thereby an abstract painting that would not disgrace an art gallery) burns the action on our retinas. It was stunningly done at two performances I saw: first by Zhu Yan and Sun Jie as the hapless concubine and her lover, a Peking Opera actor, and then by Wang Qimin and Hou Qingfeng. If my heart was torn, yet again, by Ms Wang’s artistry, I must also salute the anguished power of Zhu Yan as the heroine, and of the two male dancers.

And then Pink Floyd Ballet and an audience very different from the somewhat staid public of the preceding nights – explained perhaps by ticket prices that can stretch a local household budget. For Petit’s delicious extravaganza, with its ranks of white-clad dancer-
gymnasts (Zhou Zhaohui an ebullient marvel) and its indefatigably witty sequence of dances, there was a pop-concert audience, with girls screaming at every feat of bravura by the chaps on stage. It is a knock-out show of inventive ideas, brilliant lighting, Petit pulling tricks and re-minting the coinage of his years making brilliant shows in Paris theatres for Zizi Jeanmaire and never failing to give the songs their due. It was danced with a wit, an elegant, Olympic bravura from the men that was irresistible.

But then, I find the National Ballet of China irresistible in its integrity, artistry and huge potential.

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