menu - sommaire

Feng Ying, Director of the National Ballet of China

version française  Version française

chinese translation  中文版

A 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.

feng ying portrait

How did you step into the world of dance and became a ballerina?

Well 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.

feng ying swan lake

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?

Well, 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 of dance.

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 there.

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.

feng ying giselle

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 big issue.

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 Spring Festival.

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 this?

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?

It’s 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?

The 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

Special 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
haut de page