|Feng Ying, Director of the National Ballet of China
|| Version française
new generation of “etoiles” becomes artistic directors of
ballet companies all around the world, Farukh Ruzimatov (withdraw from
the position two years ago), Nina Ananiashivili, Igor Zelensky, Kader
Belarbi, Manuel Legris, Sergei Filin,… and in China, Feng Ying
joins this team.
How did you step into the world of dance and became a ballerina?
it’s an old question…I came from a family of workers in
Ha’erbin, the capital city of a North-Eastern province
Heilongjiang in China. Nobody in my family has anything to do with art
or dance, but when I was very young, I just liked bouncing and jumping,
singing and dancing. It was a special era, in 1973, I was then
10-year-old, the Beijing Dance Academy went to Ha’erbin to
recruit young students. In those days Chinese didn’t know what
ballet was at all, we only knew The Red Detachment of Women
and White-Haired Girl (note: two well known Chinese ballets in China).
The professors of the Beijing Dance Academy went to our school, watched
us to have sports class, let us do some exercises and jumping and
extension of legs, and evaluated our preliminary body conditions, then
some of us were asked to have audition the next weekend at the
Municipal Children’s Palace, I was fortunately selected. Our
sports class teacher led us to the Children’s Palace, we had
three rounds of auditions – basic exercises, combinations and
imitation. We had to prepare our own programs, and most of us
didn’t know how to do. Then we had a game together so that the
professors could observe our reactions. It was in June, we were told to
wait for admission notice, then in August, I received the notice that I
was admitted – just like a dream! My parents didn’t know
what this meant, they only knew that going to Beijing was always a good
thing for their daughter. When I got on the train for Beijing, my
parents changed their mind and didn’t want me to go. There were
totally eighteen students who were admitted from Ha’erbin, we
cried on the train, and the professors had to comfort us one by one.
Without knowing anything about ballet, I went to the Beijing Dance
Academy and started my basic training. We got up very early in the
morning at 5:15 am, we practiced day by day, at the beginning the
training was very dull, not interesting at all, I became very homesick.
From the grade II (note: in China, classes from low to high level are
from Grade I to Grade VI, different from that of French), our courses
had more varieties and I became used to the training, we learnt
different kinds of dances apart from classical ballet – Chinese
folk dances, Chinese classical dances, and we even practiced
somersaults, meanwhile we did some practical repertoire like Bees and Bear, The Little Girl Selling Matches, Les Enfants des prairies. From 1978, we started to learn Swan Lake and other western classical ballets.
In 1979, after graduated from the Beijing Dance Academy I was engaged
directly to the National Ballet of China. We were the first generation
of students who were engaged in the company after the Culture
Revolution, a totally fresh generation. We were lucky we catched up the
time when China started to reform and open the door to the western
world. There were a lot of repertoire to be performed, a lot of tours,
in a Soiree we could even dance four big pieces, for example Swan Lake act II, The Dying Swan, Pas de quatre and Etudes.
In 1982, under the project of Sino-French Culture Exchange program, I
was sent to Paris Opera Ballet School to have an one-year training,
together with other two dancers of the National Ballet of China –
Ying Runsheng my dance partner and Bai Shuxiang (note: the first
Chinese ballerina who danced Odette/Odile in Swan Lake,
in this project she practiced with the Paris Opera Ballet, not in the
school). We arrived in Paris in June, July and August are holiday
period of the Paris Opera Ballet, so we were enrolled in two extensive
summer training sessions: three weeks with Maurice Béjart,
another four weeks with Rosella Higthower in Cannes. Maurice
Béjart himself conducted the courses and rehearsals, at the end
of the training session we had a demonstrational performance of some
small works of Béjart. Béjart would wish me to dance his Romeo and
Juliet in Brussels in Belgium, but I was not able to go because the
schedule was not appropriate. Following Béjart, I learnt for the
first time a new concept of choreography and completely new body
languages to express different kinds of music. With Rosella Higthower,
we had courses of ballet, jazz and dancing pedagogy. Then in September
I was enrolled in the highest class in the Paris Opera Ballet School,
with other six French students. What impressed me a lot was our
professor, her feet were so beautiful and eloquent. She emphasized
quite a lot on the speed, precision, fluency and liaison of foot steps,
this was quite different from the Russian school which we had in China.
I’ve gained a lot from this one-year training experience in
France and made huge progresses.
In your career, who and what have influenced you the most?
quite a lot… At the beginning it was my professors in the
Beijing Dance Academy who changed my understanding of ballet. In 1978,
Ben Stevenson came to the Academy for the first time, he brought us a
very new training method, it was different from the Russian school
which we had followed, the old Russian school required us to turn out
the feet or to extend the legs as much as possible without keeping a
good position of the whole body, while Stevenson let us know that to
turn out the muscles were the right way to turn out from the joints of
hip to the legs then the feet. He brought us a way of using both
contemporary methods and classical body languages to express, such as
his Prelude, direct and beautiful.
For the aspect of artistry, I have to say Galina Ulanova influenced me
the most. I haven’t seen her in person, but only in old films and
videos, her interpretation of The Fountain of Bakhchiserai, Giselle, Swan Lake, Stone Flower, Romeo and Juliet…
her poetic and lyrical performances were rooted deeply in my
heart… I had a dream to become an Ulanova in China. It was her
who made me know how to cultivate the sense of musicality and artistry
And that one-year training in Paris benefited me a lot as well, I took
notes after each class, I went to see performances of the Paris Opera
Ballet from the highest balcony of Palais Garnier, I went to museums...
Paris is the capital of art full of dynamics, I enjoyed very much its
artistic atmosphere. I remember when I went to Versailles, when I
promenaded in the garden there, the sunshine shed through the shades of
trees, I just felt that was exactly a valse and people should dance
Then it was Nureyev, thanks to Madam Dai Ailian, Nureyev was invited to
the National Ballet of China in 1985, he gave his version of Don Quixote as a present. For me, Don Quixote
was a big challenge in terms of virtuosity and style, as my nature was
more mild and lithe. Nureyev required that everything should be
expressed in an exaggerated way, high extensions, big amplitude of
movements, fifth position must be crossed or even over-crossed, fast
and fine foot steps, he was very process-oriented, full of
passion… he was a consummate dancer who had melted different
schools all together.
From a ballerina to a ballet master then to be a director, how do you
deal with these changes of roles?
From 1979 to 1997, as a dancer for 18 years I’ve performed almost
all the repertoire of the company, classical ballets, Chinese ballets
and contemporary works of our time. Then in 1997 I left the stage
because of injury and became a ballet teacher in the company. Early in
1994, I was sent to a four-week summer training program in Michigan in
the USA to learn teaching methodology of dance, together with Wang
Caijun (note: male principal dancer of the National Ballet of China,
now Secretary of the Party of the company), Li Jian (note: ballet
professor of the company) and Wu Zhengrong (note: ballet professor of
the company). We learned from a German teacher Schneider, I took notes
carefully after each class. It was in that period that I commenced to
prepare myself as a teacher with intention, I had some adaptation
period, then in 1997 my transition from a dancer to a teacher was not a
As a dancer, I just need to concentrate on rehearsals and performances,
on how to create and interpret the roles; as a teacher the same, to
help the dancers to do so. As a director (from March of 2009),
it’s completely different, lacking of experiences, the management
of a company is very hard for me, as all my past experiences were all
dancing-oriented. Now, I have to take care of all the operational and
management aspects of the company, planning, budgeting, financing,
business relationships, marketing and promotion… The pressure
comes not only from the artistic aspects, but more from the operations
of the company, from how to promote and introduce the company, a
director should meanwhile be an economist and a social activist…
As the director what’s your view about and how do you evaluate the
current situation of the National Ballet of China, from the points of dancers,
repertoire, creation and innovation, international cooperation, etc?
Well, it should be evaluated by
people outside the company… Generation by generation, artists
have contributed a lot to the company. There lacks of in-house
choreographers inside the company, but we must move forward, we have
responsibilities of introducing and inheriting classical ballets. From
1964, we started to try and explore Chinese ballet, then born The Red Detachment of Women.
One company should have its own style, this is pretty much linked with
its in-house choreographers and their creations, and this is proven by
the world known ballet companies: Balanchine, his symphonic ballets and
The New York City Ballet ; John Neumeier and Hamburg Ballet, his works
full of contemporary sense; in France there are Pierre Lacotte, Roland
Petit and Maurice Béjart…
In the recent years, the Naitonal Ballet of China have created Raise the Red Lantern and The Peony Pavilion,
we’re trying to explore our way and our style. From last year we
introduced “Workshop” to provide young dancers a platform
and opportunities to demonstrate their talents, meanwhile to discover
and bring up our own choreographers. Based on the platform of Workshop,
we’re also trying to discover sets and costume designers as well
as composers. Although there haven’t been very stylish
choreographers yet, we’ve started. The concept of Workshop is to
cultivate and bring up choreographers for Chinese ballet. We believe
that good works will be welcomed by the public.
What’s your plan for the future of the company?
We’re trying to form our performance seasons named after
“Four Seasons” – Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter.
For the Spring Season, we stay in Beijing basically, to create new
works (for example the Workshop), to stage new ballet or to re-stage
our repertoires and to conduct internal audition of the dancers, also
we have performances for the annual Festival of Sino-French Croisements
which has been lasted for six years. Summer Season is our domestic and
international tour season, we also participate in the nation-wide
events of “Elegant Arts Going into the Campuses of universities
and middle-schools”, to introduce and popularize ballet to young
students. In Autumn Season we focus on re-stage/adaptation of
repertoires and staging of new ballets, as well as international tours,
we plan to have two tours outside mainland China every year. In Winter
Season we prepare for performances for the New Year and the Chinese
The National Ballet of China has its advantages, we say that
we’re walking on “three legs” – classical
ballets, contemporary works and Chinese ballet, while the foreign
companies have two – classical and contemporary. In recent years
we have less classical works. We have to keep balance between the three
legs and to form our own characteristics.
Many domestic spectators complain that the company hasn’t introduced any
new full length ballets for the recent two years, what are your comments on
As for the concept of new ballets worldwide, there is a common
understanding that works of ballet recycle in a company’s
repertoire. For the National Ballet of China, we’re encountering
the problem of importing new ballets, of course our
“Workshop” can be called new works. A full length ballet is
a comprehensive work which is influenced by many factors, there are
conflicts between creation, market of performance and financial budget.
The creation of a new ballet, apart from its pre-works, requires at
least two months’ of rehearsals, means we can’t do
performances and there is no income for the company in this period,
this financial gap need to be filled in, there is a huge gap, the
government financial investment can only cover the cost of head-counts,
we have to make at least 150 performances each year to cover this gap.
In China, there exists no system of donation for the arts. When I
attend the annual meeting of ballet directors, I find that all most all
the ballet companies in the world are facing the same situation,
they’re also worry…
Concerning the tours abroad this year: Raise the Red Lantern in
Hamburg in July and The Peony Pavilion in Edinburgh in August, why
select these two ballets?
the inviting party who select the menu. Usually it’s the result
of mutual agreement, for example when we had tour in Paris last time,
we recommended The Red Detachment of Women and Sylvia,
and the Paris Opera Ballet agreed. If the inviting party doesn’t
know too much about us and our repertoires, sometimes we recommend some
Chinese works for a Triple Bill, like Yellow River, Butterfly Lovers, etc.
Then what do you want to say to foreign spectators?
National Ballet of China has less reputation and popularity than those big
foreign ballet companies in the world. If we have opportunities to perform
outside Chine, we warmly invite them to step into Chinese ballets, to get to
know what we could demonstrate in the field of ballet art in the world stage.
Feng Ying - Interview by Enya Chen
thanks to Madam Chen Li'e, professor of the National Ballet of China,
who helped to establish the liaison for this interview.
Interview done on May 19th. 2011 - Feng Ying © 2011, Dansomanie