Ballet blazes new trails in China
Zhu Yan, principal dancer of the China National Ballet, was amazed when she first saw German ballet director John Neumeier's choreography. "All the pieces were so different," she says of the show in Hamburg in 2010.
But this year her own company will be adding Neumeier's The Little Mermaid to its repertoire, in the hope of enthralling audiences in China. Neumeier is to spend a month in Beijing working with the company ahead of the performance in September.
Throughout its history Chinese ballet has made great leaps, Feng Yin, the director of the national dance company, tells dpa.
When the Beijing ballet school was founded in 1959, the dancing followed the Russian style, she explains.
During the Cultural Revolution, from 1966-1976, all the dances served the revolutionary cause. To this day, the Red Women's Batallion is the country's most famous ballet.
But the appeal of works like Peony Pavillion or Raise the Red Lantern, which was performed in Hamburg in the summer, goes beyond their revolutionary context and has ushered in a new, universal and timeless ballet tradition in China.
"We are always getting better, very quickly," says Feng, herself a former ballerina. "We have a lot of confidence in our dancers, though we are a bit weak in terms of choreography and creativity."
She looks forward to the collaboration with Neumeier, saying "it will be very helpful for the artistic expression of our dancers." Neumeier himself is fascinated by Chinese ballet. "Inner concentration instead of outward expression," as he calls it, plays a great role in his work as well.
Facing the differences between Chinese and Western ballet, Feng fears a collision when the two meet. "It will be a lengthy project to mix the two styles," she says. "We must first learn this dialect of dance, before we can develop it as our own style."
Ballet culture in China is still in its "very early phase," Feng says. Classics like Swan Lake or Giselle are widely appreciated, but when it comes to modern ballet, audiences are still perplexed.
Western audiences have been watching Swan Lake for more then a century, she says, and so "must be bored and craving something new."
But she believes that it will not take so long for Chinese ballet-goers to develop similar appetites.
The collaboration with Neumeier is a promising step, she says. "It is extremely interesting to see different types of expression through different people who are dancing the same thing."
Neumeier, the longest-serving ballet director in the world, is full of praise for the "very progressive" path the China National Ballet has chosen.
In return, its star dancer is equally taken with Neumeier. "For me he is the greatest choreographer in the world," Zhu says. "I admire him greatly. His work is fantastic."