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UPDATED: July 25, 2015 NO.30 JULY 23, 2015
Times Not Forgotten
The National Ballet of China wows audiences at the Lincoln Center Festival
By Corrie Dosh

Dancers with the NBC perform The Red Detachment of Women at the Lincoln Center in New York City on July 11 (CNSPHOTO)

The National Ballet of China (NBC) brought two classic works to Koch Theater in New York City as part of this year's Lincoln Center Festival--a 2008 adaptation of Peony Pavilion and the beloved 50-year-old The Red Detachment of Women. Both works evoke an iconic vision of China, the first a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) world of hidden passion, in which each subtle word or movement has great subtext, the other a bold and revolutionary cry of freedom from the birth of modern China.

"The NBC is bringing to us two distinctive and very different ballets this season. Both ballets tell us something about the long history of China at very different times in its history," said Lincoln Center Festival Director Nigel Redden, adding that while Peony Pavilion is a familiar story to New York audiences, The Red Detachment of Women is better known through reputation.

Artistic Director Feng Ying of the NBC said that it brought great pleasure to stage these two Chinese classics on the world stage of the Lincoln Center. The troupe, founded in 1959, encompasses more than 80 dancers, 70 orchestra musicians, 30 stage technicians and designers, and 40 support staff--most of whom made the trip to New York City.

"We are very glad and honored to bring more than 180 staff members to the festival," Feng said. "The Lincoln Center is where all of the most excellent ballet companies in the world are longing to present, so we are also very happy to present our two different ballets in this city."

Feng also thanked China's Ministry of Culture and the China National Arts Fund for making it possible to bring such a large troupe to the Lincoln Center Festival.

"I saw the company in Beijing, and one of the things I felt was quite wonderful about the contrast between the two Chinese ballets was The Red Detachment of Women carries a certain weight and power while Peony Pavilion emphasizes a certain lyrical quality, lighter than air. I think having these two aspects of what the NBC does so well is so important," Redden said.

This contrast fits into the themes of this year's Lincoln Center Festival as a whole, Redden added, and New York audiences appreciate unique and different performances. Both of these ballets deliver.

"One of the things I love is the idea of connections between disparate things at the festival," Redden said. "This year, we are doing the four history plays of Shakespeare and they end in a glorious battle. The Red Detachment of Women, in some ways, is a similar subject. You realize that artists working in different parts of the world, in different eras, somehow have a connection."

Revisiting Peony

The star-crossed lovers of Peony Pavilion have long been hailed as the Romeo and Juliet of ancient China. The 16th-century story has traditionally been performed as a kunqu opera over 20 hours--a feat ambitiously staged at the Lincoln Center Festival in 1999. The newest staging of the classic condenses the story into two hours and takes on a more modern interpretation. Kunqu is one of the oldest forms of Chinese opera that dominated Chinese theater from 16th to 18th century.

"It's very different with the classic ballet I have watched before," audience member Mindy Fisher told Beijing Review. "[With] different sentiments and movements; it's absolutely beautiful and exciting."

As befitting the romantic storyline of Peony Pavilion, the ballet is delicate and haunting. The maiden Du Liniang awakens from a dream in which she meets her lover, the scholar Liu Mengmei, and takes on a new awareness of her growing maturity and desires. Two alter egos emerge: the kunqu singer Du and the charming Flower Goddess Du. Each of the three female identities is represented in a bold color of red, blue or white. A kunqu singer dressed in traditional costume floats about the stage, singing lines from the original opera.

Liu, for his part, seems preoccupied with his lover's delicate shoes and feet--a connection both to the aesthetics of modern ballet as well as the symbol of feminine beauty from ancient China. At several points the ballet slippers of Du, played by prima ballerina Zhu Yan, become fetishized props, and the delicate bare feet of the dancer become objects of desire. The unspoken and unfulfilled longing of the lovers is beautifully expressed in the worship of the empty slipper--much as it might have been in a Ming Dynasty painting.

The staging is bathed in soft, muted lighting with gigantic, soft peonies gently strewn about as if they had fallen from a storybook sky. The dancers float about as if in a painting, while a golden throne centers the focus.

Adding to this blending of modern ballet with ancient Chinese aesthetics is the score arranged by Chinese composer Guo Wenjing. Guo blends the traditional kunqu with selections from Claude Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, La mer, and Nocturnes; Maurice Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé and Ma mère l'Oye; Ottorino Respighi's Roman Festivals and Pines of Rome; Gustav Holst's The Planets; and Sergei Prokofiev's Scythian Suite.

While many troupes from overseas have used recordings as their musical score, unable to afford the massive costs of transporting a full orchestra halfway around the world, the NBC has spared no expense in transporting its 76 orchestra musicians along with the cast to New York City. The decision was a wise one. Pre-recorded music would not have had the same impact.

"It's like eating Chinese food," said Feng at a press briefing prior to the performance. "You have to have the original recipes."

Other troupes featured at the Lincoln Center Festival have taken a hybrid approach to staging their performances. London's Royal Ballet performed last month with the in-house orchestra of New York City Ballet. The unique scoring of traditional Chinese instruments with Western classical selections made it necessary to transport the entire company from Beijing, however.

"We wanted to have the company come in its full glory," said Redden. "To have the company orchestra do it made much more sense than to try to rehearse an orchestra here."

Red Detachment rebirth

While Peony Pavilion is light and lyrical, The Red Detachment of Women is brash and assertive. For many Americans, this world of revolutionary New China with its scores of fresh-faced soldiers joyfully celebrating the triumph of the common worker over the aristocracy remains a fascinating and unknown experience.

Like no other performance, The Red Detachment of Women is what most Americans think of when they consider revolutionary ballets. The ballet, first created in 1964, was famously performed for U.S. President Richard Nixon on his 1972 visit to China, and its gun-toting, grenade-throwing ballerinas continue to enthrall.

Choreographed by Li Chengxiang, Jiang Zuhui and Wang Xixian, The Red Detachment of Women's story focuses on Qionghua, played by Zhang Jian, a peasant girl sold into slavery who escapes. Quickly captured, beaten and left for dead, Qionghua falls in with a group of revolutionaries led by Hong Changqing, played by Zhou Zhaohui. While ensconced in the all-female detachment, the heroine learns discipline, strength and has her revenge against the slave-owner in a heroic conclusion that proclaims "March, march, march, forward for victory!" as the troupe advances toward the audience with rifles raised.

Since its debut 50 years ago, The Red Detachment of Women has been performed nearly 4,000 times globally. It was the first Chinese ballet created after 1949 and is primarily known from the 1961 film adaptation. Enough time has passed since the earnest and early days of the revolution and the Cold War mentality of the West that audiences eagerly embrace the ballet as a kitschy throwback to a China that has no resemblance to the modern country today.

Western tourists to Beijing eagerly snap up Maoist memorabilia--alarm clocks and watches, copies of the Little Red Book, posters and calendars emblazoned with bright revolutionary depictions of idealized life in New China--and this same spirit seems to carry over into the popularity of The Red Detachment of Women.

"I liked the show. It's historical, and combines ballet and revolutionary themes together with great music," said audience member Kristin Garot. "It was bright, colorful and very impressive."

Audience member Peter Tan called the show "creative."

"It not only tells the story of the women's detachment but also artistically portrays the emotions of the characters very vividly. Although I don't quite understand the beginning, the story explains itself quite well as the ballet advances," Tan said. "The revolutionary spirit of the Chinese people is apparent in the plot of the ballet. The ballet was short, but it is such a classic."

(Shen Anqi contributed to this story)

The author is a contributing writer to Beijing Review, living in New York City

Copyedited by Kylee McIntyre

Comments to yanwei@bjreview.com

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