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National Ballet of China

'The Red Detachment of Women', 'Swan Lake Act II', 'The Yellow River'

by Carmel Morgan

September 23, 2011 -- The JFK Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC

In cooperation with China’s Ministry of Culture, the Kennedy Center is presenting a number of offerings this fall as part a series titled “China: The Art of a Nation.” The National Ballet
of China (“NBC”) brought with it both traditional and contemporary ballets, all tinged with a distinct Chinese character and a healthy dose of national pride.

Two ballets of Chinese origin opened and closed the program: Acts I and II from 1964’s “The Red Detachment of Women” and 1999’s “The Yellow River,” set to a famous piano concerto composed during World War II. Whether these patriotic pieces brought happy memories to the many audience members of Chinese ancestry who now make the United States their home I cannot say. I can say that I felt uncomfortable being beaten over the head with China’s much
touted greatness. Using ballet as propaganda tool, though, is obviously nothing new. Still, I shuddered at the armed ballerinas and the poor peasant heroine who admiringly stroked a huge Communist flag. Yeah, yeah, I got the message.

Setting aside the politics of “The Red Detachment of Women,” however, the work wa nevertheless far more spectacle than substance. Although the ballet boasts an impressive stagiof a rainstorm, complete with flashing lights and perfectly timed booming thunder, the dancing, unfortunately, did not evoke the same electricity. Lu Na, as the poor peasant’s daughter, showed off lovely extensions, but her movement lacked heart. The other dancers, as well, acted in a
stilted manner. They seemed to concentrate only on technique, and not feeling. The loud canned
music hammered home the emotion of the work instead of the dancers, who completed rounds
of jerky martial arts-inspired gestures and fist pumps like broken puppets. They could have
been drill team members with their guns, knives, and flowing pink ribbons. The dancers formed
precise lines, running in and out and around each other in the military parade in Act II. Here
they were at their best, but for me, the excerpts from “The Red Detachment of Women” did not
rise above carefully crafted imagery to reach true ballet artistry.

Given the disappointing start to the program, I was dreading Act II from “Swan Lake.” I
worried that in “Swan Lake,” too, the dancers would appear like automatons. To my surprise
and pleasure, everyone stepped up their game, and the dancers were able to capture much of
the subtle emotion and beauty of the swans. Calm yet deeply felt expressions swept across her
face and throughout her body as Zhu Yan danced the part of Odette/Odile (she performed the
same role with the Royal New Zealand Ballet in 2002). While I had been concerned the dancers

would lack delicacy, since they so mechanically flaunted their prowess in “Red Detachment,”
in “Swan Lake,” the corps, surprisingly, could have used more firmness and snappiness. The
women, who possessed muscular arms and arched backs, moved unexpectedly gently. The
Four Cygnets (Wang Qi, Wang Ye, Yao Haijing, and Xie Lijun), had the speed right, but in this
beloved and challenging sequence they needed to add sharpness to the twists of their heads and
the raising of their knees. NBC’s “Swan Lake” excerpt was not seamless, but it was enjoyable. I
appreciated the respect and restraint the dancers, and artistic director Feng Ying, gave to “Swan
Lake.” In contrast to the showy and voluble “Red Detachment,” “Swan Lake” whispered in a
way that made the company really shine.

“The Yellow River,” choreographed by Chen Zemei, closed the evening. Placing it last on the
program made sense. “The Yellow River” is contemporary and rousing and brings a big bag of
tricks to the stage, providing a definite wow factor that assures the audience will leave on a high
note. The men wore costumes in shades of yellow ochre, and the women wore shades of salmon
and persimmon. A backdrop of broad brush strokes, with the aid Qu Yongde’s fine lighting
design, changed in color and mood with the ups and down of the musical score. The dancers,
as well, took on the changing moods of the music, rejoicing as they played in the rolling waves
of the river, then encountering difficulty when the waves picked up. Men performed rowing
movements, but when the water evidently turned rough, they ferried a woman across the stage,
lifting her through a sea of bodies so that she floated above the fury. Later, a throng of dancers
whipped their arms like windmills, stepping backwards, each doing the backstroke.

The company displayed remarkable unison and athleticism in “The Yellow River,” but much
of the dancing seemed more akin to gymnastics than ballet. Men leapt up to perform multiple,
spread-eagled, toe-touching jumps. Several also swung one leg up 90 degrees, foot to nose, to
balance on the opposite leg and hold that position, almost as if they were waiting for a judge
to count the seconds they were able to stand still like that and jot down a score. Like the river
for which it was named, the work and its dancers displayed lightness and buoyancy and also
extraordinary power. I cannot quite picture a Western ballet company choosing to acquire “The
Yellow River” for their repertoire, since it seems so closely tied to Chinese patriotism, yet it’s an
entertaining work. Overall, the performance gave a significant snapshot of where Chinese ballet
has been and where it may be headed.

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