Russian ballet was long considered to have the most technically proficient dancers, the most emotional performances, and pretty much universally regarded as being top of the ballet tree. That is until recently. The last few decades has seen Chinese ballet troupes growing in international recognition and they have established themselves as highly professional dancers in the worldwide arena by winning major worldwide competitions, including ones in Moscow and Helsinki. How did the country manage to climb on top of the industry, while being right at the bottom of it only a few decades ago?
Ballet entered China in the 1950s and it originated from its main ally at the time – Russia. At the beginning ballet was represented, and taught solely by Russian choreographers. However, as Sino-Russian relations weakened, Russian teachers began to leave China and were slowly replaced by the Chinese.
It is often asked why ballet gained popularity among the Chinese so late. It was popular in many other countries decades before, and the Chinese, with their delicate nimble frames, seemed perfect for ballet.
At the start of the 20th century vast numbers of Chinese women used to bind their feet, and this would make it difficult to walk let alone dance as something as complex as ballet with it’s complex intricacy and need for perfect balance. Sure enough, as foot binding disappeared, so ballet began to emerge, rapidly spreading across the country.
Another obstacle to adopting ballet in China, that most modest of countries, was the widespread notion that women could not be touched by anyone but their husbands. To limit the impact of touching others, in what can often appear all-too-intimate fashion, ballet in China started with group dances only slowly graduating to paired dancing. At this point, performing world-famous ballets like Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet finally possible, and Chinese ballet could start its steady advance into the international dance arena.
Throughout the existence of ballet in China, the industry has seen numerous difficulties. The National Ballet of China, founded in 1959 and remains to this day, undoubtedly the most famous Chinese ballet troupe in history; but it had its setbacks. It was the first and is currently the only state-run ballet troupe in the country. When the wife of the Chairman Mao – Jiang Qing – overtook the company, not only was her repertoire so minimal that only two productions could be performed (The Red Detachment of Women and the White-Haired Girl) but the group was forced to tour around the country promoting national values and culture, often just by walking and having to individually carry their own belongings.
Currently the troupe is well-known throughout the world for its exquisite technique, which comprises of a strict training schedule, intense emotional expression on the stage, and with the slightest whiff off Chinese characteristics. More precisely, the National Ballet of China is now ‘walking on three legs‘ as Feng Ying, current artistic director of the troupe has claimed, this means performing three types of productions: the world’s famous classics, ideologically inspired performances, and showing the most recent ballet productions of western directors.
The troupe has been touring around the world and has been to 20 different countries in Europe, America and Asia. The main aim is to promote international connections and cultural interchange.
Recently, the troupe increased its recognition with its magnificent showing of the Swan Lake production that gained rave reviews worldwide. Audiences were astonished by the professionalism of the dancers, not to mention the new vision brought in by the choreographers: it was a unique interpretation.
There are, of course, many other internationally famous Chinese ballet troupes, all of which are known for their performance technique the world over. These include the Shanghai Ballet, the Classical Ballet of Guangzhou, and the China Liaoning Ballet to name just a few. Not only has China many well-recognized ballet troupes, but it also has established the Annual Beijing International Ballet and Choreography Competition, which attracts many of the finest dancers on the globe.
Chinese ballet is a unique mixture of traditional Chinese stories, a touch of ideology, a dash of western styles, and a big twist of the well-known classical productions. There is exquisite technique, a unique approach and emotional performances of the highest order. With the unquestionable diligence of the their dancers, Chinese ballet is already now considered top in the world, and that wasn’t easy to admit because I’m Russian!
Chinese Ballet in Moscow in 1961
“The Red Detachment of Women” is still performed at present