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Ballet in China> Beijing Review Archive> 1950s
UPDATED: February 24, 2010 NO. 52 DECEMBER 29, 1959
The Maid of the Sea

The maid of the sea dances at her wedding (Li Ke-yu)

The Peking School of Dancing has scored another hit with its production of the full-length Chinese ballet The Maid of the Sea. In the few years since its founding, it has successfully produced three Western classical ballets - La Jeune Fille Mal Gardée, Swan Lake and Le Corsair.

But the latest addition to its repertoire is in a completely different vein. It is the first Chinese ballet that is based mainly on classical Chinese and folk dances while drawing on the Western ballet and Eastern dances. What makes it all the more significant is the fact that it is a new work collectively written and produced by the students and instructors of the school's choreography class under the expert direction of P. A. Gusev, the veteran choreographer of the Bolshoi Theatre Ballet, who has done so much already for ballet in China as an adviser to the dance school.

Ballet is a comparatively new branch of the theatrical arts in China. In addition to studying and producing Western ballets, its Chinese devotees are doing a great deal of experimental work aiming to produce a type of ballet that is basically national in style, while assimilating certain of the fine elements of the Western ballet and dances of other countries. Among the efforts made in this direction are The Magic Lotus Lantern, produced last year by the Central Experimental Opera Theatre of Peking, and The Immortals and Red Clouds, produced respectively by the cultural troupes of the Shenyang and Canton units of the People's Liberation Army. But these were more dance-dramas than ballets; except in the first, mime predominated over dance. The Maid of the Sea marks a great advance on all of these in dancing, choreography and music, as well as in decor and unity of style; it has carried the Chinese ballet to a higher level of artistry.

Chinese legends and folk tales abound in stories depicting the triumph of good over evil and the people's longing and struggles for a peaceful, happy life. Drawing on this rich store of folklore, The Maid of the Sea tells the story of a mermaid's love for a brave young hunter. Their dream of a happy life together, however, is frustrated by a demon who wants the maid for himself. His schemes tear them apart. Finally, after many difficulties, he is killed by the young hunter with the help of the old ginseng men who personify the beneficent forces of nature, and the two lovers are happily united.

The choreographers have succeeded in clearly telling a story that is well-knit and full of imaginative incidents. It carries the audience along to its climax with many charming scenes on the way. Its producers have skilfully created the images of three different worlds - the romantic and colourful world beneath the water, the free and happy world of men, and the dark and orgiastic world of the demon. Traditional Chinese theatrical dance movements and the classical dance are used to bring out the contrasts. The effect; is accentuated by the competent music written by Wu Chu-chiang and Tu Ming-hsin, two young teachers at the Central Conservatory of Music.

Unlike previous attempts at Chinese ballet, it is the dance which mainly carries the story and expresses the thoughts and feelings of the characters; mime is supplementary. Another of the merits of The Maid of the Sea is that its producers have succeeded in blending the various dance elements of which it is compounded, both Chinese and foreign, classical and modern, into a harmonious whole, making use of the different dance idioms and forms to produce the maximum effect. The well-conceived and dramatically most satisfying second act is very successful in this respect. Various kinds of yangko dances are used to picture the joyous atmosphere at the wedding of the maid and the hunter. The animated, boisterous yangko dance of the Northeast, the humorous and sprightly dance of the people of Hopei and the swift and forceful yangko pop-ular among the people on the sea coast of Shantung are all employed to good effect. In the third act, which was perhaps a bit too florid and overdone in some respects, various Eastern dances are performed by the young girls whom the demon uses to lure and tempt the hunter.

The choreographers have also boldly employed certain of the elements of the Western ballet. Dancing en pointes is introduced at moments which demand a lyrical, romantic quality. In the underwater scene, in a near-classical pas de deux, the maid and the hunter express their joy in their reunion. In the third act, too, classical lifts and dancing en pointes bring out the maid's horror and repugnance at the importuning of the demon and her longing for freedom and happiness.

Chinese ballet is still in its infancy. A good beginning has been made, but it is still far from perfection as an artistic form. Many more attempts will undoubtedly be made to create a form of national ballet that combines all the best elements in classical Chinese and folk dances with those of other schools. In this respect, Maid of the Sea is a good and successful effort in the right direction, and this is in a large measure due to the choreographers' faithfulness to the principle of telling the story and developing characterization through the dance.

The recent staging in Peking of Prokofiev's Stone Flower, an outstanding production of the modern realistic school of ballet by the Bolshoi Ballet was a key pointer of the road they should follow. The Maid of the Sea showed, too, that a fine group of promising young dancers is emerging. The dance school has a corps de ballet of 170 dancers to draw on. Many of them are still in their early teens, but they have achieved quite a high standard of technique.

The teenagers dancing the roles of the old ginseng men brought a happy mixture of naivete and earnestness to their parts that endeared them to their audience. The leading roles of the maid and the hunter were danced by Chen Ai-lien and Wang Keng-yao of the graduating class of the school. They danced with feeling and artistry, and brought their parts to life. The supporting roles were also well played. The demon, particularly, danced by Chen Ming-chi was suitably malevolent. This production leaves little doubt that hard training under good direction and more experience will help them develop swiftly. These are encouraging and assuring signs that, inspired by the Communist Party's policy of "letting a hundred flowers blossom, and weeding through the old to let the new emerge," Chinese ballet will surely develop and reach maturity in the near future.

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