Source: China State Council Information Office 3
The National Ballet of China, a leading dance company, will mark 60 years of its establishment this year with celebrations of the legacy of the country’s first ballet troupe.
Highlights include 13 performances of the company’s classic ballet productions, both adaptations of Western ballets and original Chinese pieces, including Swan Lake, Giselle, Red Detachment of Women and Raise the Red Lantern, as well as concerts by the company’s symphony orchestra-all set to be staged from Nov 25 to Dec 30 in Beijing.
“The birth and growth of the National Ballet of China has been connected with the development of the country. The company has endured many challenges in its history and is a successful, confident and innovative company today,” says Feng Ying, a former ballerina and current president of the National Ballet of China.
As the country’s first institute of dance, the Beijing Dance School (now the Beijing Dance Academy) opened on Sept 6, 1954.
Dai Ailian, or Ailien Tai, then 38, an overseas Chinese ballerina, was appointed as the first president of the institute. Dai was born in a Chinese family in Trinidad and learned ballet in London. She returned to China in 1940. She became the first president of the National Ballet of China.
Before the Beijing Dance School formally opened, then-Soviet ballerina Elena Oleg Alexandrovna helped to establish a regime based on the Bolshoi Academy in Moscow. Her fellow dancer and choreographer Pyotr Gusev was the school’s artistic director from 1957 to 1960. In 1958, the school successfully performed Swan Lake, featuring Bai Shuxiang as the white swan.
In the following year, the school formed the first Chinese ballet troupe with Bai alongside 21 other dancers and an 18-member orchestra. It soon became the Central Ballet of China, which is now known as the National Ballet of China.
“It was incredible that we Chinese dancers could perform Swan Lake in such a short time. Everything was fresh, such as the costumes, lighting and the stage design,” says Bai, 80, who was born in Xinbin county, Liaoning province, and was selected to study at the Beijing Dance Academy in 1954. “For the Chinese audience, Swan Lake represents Russian ballet.”
Bai recalls that after she performed Swan Lake, Gusev told her, “You are an artist now.”
From 1959 to 1961, under the instruction of Russian experts, the National Ballet of China staged Le Corsaire and Giselle.
According to Bai, the history of ballet in China is short compared to the history of ballet in the West.
“But the key to Chinese ballet’s growing popularity is telling homegrown stories,” she says.
In 1964, China’s first original ballet production, Red Detachment of Women, premiered in Beijing. It is best known in the West as the ballet performed for former US president Richard Nixon during his visit to China in 1972.
Based on a film with the same name, it tells the story of a rural girl, Wu Qionghua, who escapes a life of slavery and joins an all-female Communist Party army battalion led by commander Hong Changqing on Hainan island during the civil war in the early 1930s.
Bai played the role of Wu in the original ballet production and she, along with choreographer Li Chengxiang and composer Wu Zuqiang, as well as ballet dancers of the company, spent months in Hainan province to better understand and portray the soldiers. Red Detachment of Women remains one of the most popular ballet pieces of the company and has been staged around the world more than 4,000 times.
“When you look at the company’s history, you see the contribution made by different generations of artists. We keep and pass on the tradition,” says Feng, who first played the role of Wu Qionghua in 1992.
While keeping the tradition of adapting classic Western ballet pieces, the company has been creating original Chinese works, too.
In 2001, the company premiered the Chinese ballet piece, Raise the Red Lantern, which is adapted from filmmaker Zhang Yimou’s popular 1991 movie with the same title. The ballet, also directed by Zhang, combined Western ballet with Chinese folk dance and Peking Opera, which proved to be a commercial success.
Since 2010, the company has been holding workshops every year, aiming to inspire and nurture China’s young dancers and choreographers.
Last year, a dance school affiliated with the company was founded to support more talented children.