Pai Shu-hsiang in Swan Lake
China's first classical ballet company, the Experimental Ballet Troupe of the Peking School of Dancing, is giving its first performances abroad. It is on tour in Burma on the invitation of the Burmese Government.
The troupe is one of China's youngest theatrical companies and the first ballet company ever formed in China. It was established towards the end of 1959 and is made up of the graduates, teachers and choreographers of China's first regular dance school, the Peking School of Dancing.
The dance school itself was founded in 1954. Four years later, in 1958, it presented its first production - Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake - and since then has converted many in China into fervent balletomanes.
Recalling that premiere, many student-dancers still vividly remember how in the third scene when their talented classmate, the 18-year-old Pai Shu-hsiang, came to the traditional 32 fouettes in Odile's coda, they all forgot themselves and silently but tensely counted "one, two, three..." until, with great relief and satisfaction, she finished all 32 to a tremendous burst of applause.
The young ballet has come a long way since that debut. Pai Shu-hsiang in the role of Odette-Odile in Swan Lake dances today with confidence, an accomplished young ballerina. She has reached not only a professional level of technical virtuosity but mastered the art of dramatic interpretation. As Odette returning to the lakeside, heartbroken because of the apparent infidelity of her Prince, the lyrical expressiveness of her movements compels sympathy.
Liu Ching-tang, who dances the role of the Prince in Swan Lake, comes from a poor peasant family. By assiduous study of classical music and art, and wide reading in classical Western literature, he has bridged the way to a deeper understanding of his role. The troupe has several other leading dancers of talent and promise and the corps de ballet too has greatly improved. When they entered the school in 1954, most of them knew little about dancing in general and less about ballet. The rapid progress they have made is astonishing.
Starting with 160 students and a staff of 30 seven years ago, the school now has more than 300 students in its two departments of Ballet and Chinese National Dance. Enrolled in its seven-year course are under-tens and teenagers from China's many nationalities: Hans, Tibetans, Uighurs, Koreans and many others. The only requirements for admittance are a primary school education and, more important, the physical build that will allow them to be trained into good dancers. Parents have no worry about school expenses. The school is not only tuition-free; the state provides all students with textbooks, dance shoes and other things needed for instruction as well as with medical care, food and board and, if they need it, pocket money too. In addition to their professional training, all students are given tuition in general educational subjects so that after seven years, their scholastic level is about the same as that of an average senior middle school graduate.
In professional training, classroom instruction is combined at an early stage with stage practice. Afternoons as a rule are devoted to training exercises and rehearsals. A student performance is given every month. Now, with the Experimental Ballet Troupe in existence, even second year students get chances to appear in public performances.
The Ballet Department owes much of its success to the expert guidance of P.A. Gusev of the Soviet Union and other Soviet teachers. It was they who helped the students stage Swan Lake after only four months of intensive rehearsing. This was followed by the production (in 1959) of the classical ballet Corsair and then the Chinese national dance drama The Maid of the Sea, created by the school and combining Western classical ballet with Chinese national and folk dance movements, followed by Giselle. It was through these efforts that the first group of Chinese ballet dancers and choreographers has been trained and the foundation laid for the forming of the troupe.
Teachers and students have also been greatly benefited by the opportunities they have had of seeing performances by many outstanding visiting artists and groups. Memorable performances have been given in Peking by the Novosibirsk and Stanislavski Ballet Theatres, the Bolshoi Ballet with such stars as Ulanova, Plisetskaya and Lepeshinskaya and others, the British Ballet Rambert, the Swedish Royal Ballet and other troupes, including that of the famous Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso who headed her full company herself. To learn as much as possible from these splendid artists and troupes the school, whenever possible, has always sent some of its young teachers and best students to accompany the guests on their China tours. These efforts have been most rewarding. From Alicia Alonso, for instance, the troupe learnt a delightful and rollickingly funny version of the short ballet, Vain Precautions (La Fille Mal Gardée).
The school's experimental troupe now has about 150 members, formed mostly of its own graduates. The majority of the other more than 200 graduates of the school have returned to the song and dance ensembles which originally sent them to the school for training. One of them is the fine dancer Chao Ching, now nationally known, of the class of 1954. Her dancing was warmly acclaimed by the Soviet public when they recently saw her in the dance dramas The Magic Lotus Lantern and The Small Dagger Society, produced by the Central Experimental Opera and Dance Drama Theatre during its last year's tour of the Soviet Union.
Over the years, the school has also trained its own choreographers, directors and teachers. The Chinese National Dance Department, also a new endeavour, even lacked a programme of instruction at the beginning. Now it has developed a systematized method of training. Chao Ching, whom we have just mentioned, is a graduate of this department. As for the Ballet Department, the extent of public approval can be judged from the fact that ever since the first public performance of Swan Lake, every single ticket of every performance has been bought up as soon as advertised.