Ballet, the dance created for court performances in Renaissance Europe that reached into the world of high art in early 17th century France, has long been loved by Chinese. As early as the 1920s, and into the 1950s and 1960s when the country was alienated from the West and its people were mired in poverty, some urban Chinese parents sent their daughters to ballet class after school, believing that this Western genre of art was the epitome of beauty and an educational requirement for young ladies who held great expectations.
Thanks to the Russian artists who frequently visited China, ballet was one of the only Western traditions to be performed on Chinese stages from the 1950s to the early 1970s. Famous Russian troupes performed Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and Giselle. Ballet's grand theatrical form, which is set to gorgeous music, enthralled Chinese audiences who became the first generation that began to understand and enjoy the Western art. The Chinese public's wide admiration for the art endured. As a result, soon after the country adopted its policy of reform and opening up in the late 1970s, quite a number of foreign ballet troupes, such as Britain's famous Royal Ballet, were invited to China to perform, teach and participate in exchange programs, resulting in an even larger group of Chinese fans.
The influence of ballet on the Chinese people goes far beyond its artistic merits. It is a performance art combining dance with different styles of music. It is a form of storytelling, where popular Western fairytales and literature masterpieces such as Don Quixote and Eugene Onegin gain new dimensions. Every play serves as a classroom about Western culture. Meticulously choreographed movements, ballet techniques and well-trained artists wow audiences to the exclusion of objections and scorn even among the most conservative local cultural critics, despite the fact that the art shares no similarities with any traditional Chinese performance arts. The result is that more and more Chinese parents flock with their children to theaters to enjoy ballet in the hope that they will be exposed to a more diverse cultural environment while developing a more refined taste for aesthetics.
Chinese ballet troupes have contributed greatly to helping the art take root in China. The country has eight troupes, not only in Beijing and Shanghai, but also in Guangzhou in the south and Shenyang in the north. Among them, the National Ballet of China, which just celebrated its 50th anniversary, has grown from a school into a cradle of the art in the country. It has survived through the catastrophic "cultural revolution" (1966-76) and has persisted in performing the art and educating the public. This dogged pursuit of the high arts enables the Chinese public to now have a flourishing cultural life and a resource that nourishes the mind.