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Classical ballet in China

 

Zhang Jian, Principal dancer, tells Dansomanie her toughts about classical balllet in China

 

 

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Zhang Jian, Principal at the National Ballet of China

   

 

 

I. Education

 

Where do you come from? What is your family background?

I come from Xiían, an ancient city in Northwest of China. I entered Beijing Dance Academy when I was 11 years old. My parents are workers, my family is as ordinary as many others.

 

How did you discover ballet?

I saw ballet from TV When I was very young, I felt it was very beautiful to be in the costume of ballet, and it was a magic to dance on point shoes. I became interested in ballet since then, but I didnít have too much knowledge about ballet at that time.

 

Could  you explain to us in details how you were taught classical dance from the beginning until your graduation?

In 1990, I passed the entry examination of Beijing Dance Academy and entered its Attachment School and I started my professional ballet training. Our professional dance training courses include: Ballet fundamental training; Chinese classical dance and folk dance; western character dances such as Spanish dance, Hungary dance, Russian dance, etc.; ballet pas-de-deux training and contemporary dance. We also have culture lessons, like literature, mathematics, geography, history, theory of art, music, etc. In the academy, our training was strictly followed the 7-year syllabus: in the first year, we started our fundamental training on the ground; in the second year, we started our barre exercises and central combination exercises with soft shoes; from the third year we started to practice on point shoes, the technical difficulties were increasing gradually. From the fourth year and afterwards, we started to practice classical variations and pas-de-deux in some repertoire for students, we also started to participate in some performances and take part in dance competitions if you were selected. In the last year we usually took part in rehearsals and performances in domestic ballet companies.

 

Were you taught music and an instrument? 

Yes, we learnt music in Beijing Dance Academy, including music theory, music appreciation, we were also required to learn and play piano in the academy.

 

Could you tell us about the teachers you had, and especially the  ones you were influenced by?

During the 7 years of training in Beijing Dance Academy, I received training and coaching from many teachers, for each subject we had a specific teacher to teach us. Among all the teachers, Miss Wang Jian, our ballet fundamental training teacher, gave me profound help and influence in my ballet career. She is a very strict and severe teacher. There is an old saying in China, ď The strict teacher has the outstanding discipleď, she had put in a lot of hard work together with me in my school years. There was a period of very hard and difficult time for me that I almost wanted to give up ballet, it was she who was always beside me and encouraged me to insist on and never give up. It was she who helped me to build up my personality of perseverance, so that I could overcome the difficulties and setbacks on the way of grown-up.  

 

When you were a child, did you have the intention to become a professional ballerina? Did you firmly know that it was your fate? 

Yes, of course. Perhaps this is a good will for every child who learns dancing. For myself it has always been my dream. I have worked very hard to achieve my goal. I believe if I work my best persistently, I would achieve my goal in my life.

 

What did you know about ballet abroad, in Europe or in America when you were a child or a teenager?   

When I was young, I didnít know that much. After entering the Beijing Dance Academy, the only way for us to get to know ballet performances abroad was through videos partly, therefore our understanding of ballet abroad was not comprehensive. But of course, we knew those world famous ballet companies, such as Paris Opera Ballet, British Royal Ballet, Kirov Ballet, Bolshoi, Royal Danish Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, etc.

 

Who were your favorite ballerinas? Have you been influenced by some special personalities in the dance world?

In the ballet world, there are quite many outstanding ballerinas, they all have their own unique styles, and their performance has served as a great source of inspiration for me, for example the former etoile Isabelle Guerin in Paris Opera Ballet.

The ballerina who I admire the best is Galina Oulanova. When I took part in the Moscow International Ballet Competition in 1997, she was the chairman of the jury. In the party of awarding ceremony, she said to me: ďThe performance of Chinese dancers could not be neglected anymore. Youíre so young, but you have performed so exquisitely.Ē She had signed her name on my point shoes, and asked me to sign my name beside her name. She is the Goddess in my mind, her affirmation towards my achievement in the ballet competition was a great inspiration for me.

In my career in the National Ballet of China, Iíve received a lot of coaching and training from the previous generation of artists and ballet masters, especially from our artistic director, Miss Zhao Ruheng, Iíve learnt a lot from her in the aspects of both art and life. Madam Dai Ailian, the first ballerina of China, she always tells us that the body of a dancer is the most lively language, and music is the soul of dance. All those words are melted into my blood.

 

 


II. Career

 

Tell us about your first roles as a professional dancer.

I joined National Ballet of China in 1996 and became a professional dancer. In August of the same year, I made my premiere as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake.


You won many prizes/medals in international competitions. Could you tell us about your participation to these competitions? 

On behalf of Beijing Dance Academy, I took part in the Helsinki International Ballet Competition in 1995, and won Silver Medal of Junior Group.


In 1997, you became a soloist, in 1998 a Principal Dancer and eventually in 2005, Prima Ballerina. How did it happen, and why did you remain for quite a long time as Principal before beeing appointed as an Etoile?

When I joined the company in 1996, I performed the leading role in Swan Lake and became a Coryphee. In 1997, I won the Gold Medal at Moscow International Ballet Competition, and performed the leading roles in Sleeping Beauty and La Bayadere (Act 3), therefore I was promoted as a Soloist. In 1998 I was promoted as a principal dancer, and from then on I have danced all the leading roles in all the repertoire of the company. The company just set up the level of Prima Ballerina since 2004.


Could you tell us in details about your repertoire?

Starting from 1996, I have performed Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, La Sylphide, Nut Cracker, Le Corsaire, Giselle, Sylvia, Raise the Red Lantern, The Red Detachment of Women, The fountain of Tears, Romeo and Juliet, Etude, La Bayadere Act 3; as for Balanchineís ballet works: The Four Temperaments, Theme and Variation, Who Cares, Serenade; Chinese contemporary works like Yellow River, Butterfly Lovers, Zhu Fu; the other ballet works: The Four Last Songs, Five Poems, The Rite of Spring, Roland Petitís Carmen and Le Jeune Homme et La Mort.


What are your favorite roles and why? What kind of dance do you prefer (romantic, classical, neo-classical, contemporary...)?

I have quite many favorite roles, among them Carmen is a very special one. This role has very sharp contrast to myself in life, and it is very different from all the other roles Iíve performed before. It has been quite challenging for me to portray the role and to perform it from heart, I have to break through my existing stage image of kindness and tenderness in order to perform a totally new Carmen. The character of Carmen helped me a lot to improve my understanding of drama performance.Comparatively speaking, I prefer romantic ballets and contemporary ballets.


Which roles would you like to  have (that you don't have yet)?

Iíve seen Hamlet Russe performed by Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg in Beijing recently. Iím quite interested in the role of Queen Katherine and would like to have a try if I have an opportunity. I would like to perform the role of Juliet in Nureyevís Romeo and Juliet someday as well.

 


Do you think a dancer can and must dance everything, that is to say, all kinds of repertoire and characters? 

I think a good dancer should not dance only those roles which are suitable for her/him, she/he should try to perform different kinds of characters, so that she/he could enrich her/his own artistic experience and become a real artist.


What kind of characters and repertoire is the most suitable and natural to your personality and dancing?

People usually have double-sided characteristics. By appearance, the audience may think that Iím suitable to dance classical ballets, like Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, etc. But in fact Iím quite enthusiastic and uninhibited.



III. Ballet in China

 

How is classical ballet considered in China, as it is a western tradition? What is its status in Chinese society?

I should say that Chinese people like classical ballets very much, for example,  Swan Like. Usually Chinese people consider the western classical ballet as the real classical ballet, and the real refined art.


How are classical dancers considered by Chinese people? Are they famous? Are some of them considered as stars?

Usually Chinese ballet audience thinks that ballet dancers are mysterious and elegant. In dance circle, ballet dancers are well-known by the other dancers, ballet training methods are well accepted by many other non-ballet dancers. But all over the country, ballet is not so popular. The popularity of ballet dancers is far less than the movie/TV actresses/actors and pop singers.


Is it a popular art nowadays? Could you tell us about the audience? Who comes to the ballet performances?

Ballet performance is considered as a kind of hot art nowadays, ballet fans are increasing gradually. In China there are many people to practice ballet in their spare-time, especially children. Therefore I believe ballet audience will become more and more in the future.


What do Chinese audience like and expect in classical ballet performances? What do they know about foreign companies and dancers? Which one do they like?

There are more and more foreign ballet companies coming to China, and we also have 5 domestic ballet companies. Chinese audience knows how good ballet companies and performances are. They hope to see the performances in China by the first class ballet companies, such as Paris Opera Ballet, Kirov Ballet. Chinese ballet fans know very well about the foreign companies and dancers. Nowadays communication media becomes very advanced, people can use Internet, TV and video products to get to know ballet in the world. Chinese people can travel abroad very easily now, so Chinese ballet fans have huge amount of information about what happens in ballet society all over the world. They have their own preference, itís hard to say which one they like the best.


How was classical ballet introduced in China? Could you tell us about the story of western classical ballet in China, and about the influence of Russians?

As early as in 1930s in Shanghai, ballet training was already started by Russian teachers. Madam Hu Rongrong, the former ballet dancer of Shanghai ballet, started her ballet training in that period. Dame Margot Fonteyn, Etoile of Royal Ballet, used to learn ballet in Shanghai as well.

But the real introduction of ballet in China was in 1954, when the first ballet school Ė Beijing Dance School was established with the help of Russian ballet master Pyotr Gusev and other Russian teachers. China started to train its own ballet teachers and dancers in scale since then. In 1958 Swan Lake was debuted by Chinese dancers; in 1959 The National Ballet of China was founded,  the company made her premiere of Giselle, The Fountain of Tears and Le Corsaire, and created the first Chinese ballet The Fish Beauty. In 1964, The Red Detachment of Women  was created by Chinese choreographers, it was a fusion between western ballet and Chinese folk art, it laid a foundation for Chinese ballet. 

For the past decades, Chinese ballet dancers have introduced many outstanding western classical ballets and contemporary works, meanwhile, Chinese ballet dancers also devoted to the practices of creating our own ballets. In 2001, Raise the Red Lantern was created, it has been well received by the audience domestically and abroad.


Nowadays, we see more and more Asian dancers participating and winning the international dance competitions. Why? What are their specific qualities? What are the differences between Chinese or Asian dancers and dancers from the rest of the world?

Asian dancers winning the international dance competitions reveals the development and progress of ballet in Asia. Ballet as a kind of imported art, it requires us to work much harder, to absorb the advantages of different styles, to gain thorough understanding through comprehensive study of the ballet and to melt it with local culture and art. Compared with the western ballet dancers, Chinese dancers are more introverted in personality, their skills are lithe and exquisite, they are good at expressing inner passion and mood of characters. 


Beyond international classical and neo-classical repertoire, are there choreographic creations in China?  How does it look like?

During the past decades, there have been many choreographic creations in China. As for the National Ballet of China, besides the well-known Chinese ballet The Red Detachment of Women and Raise the Red Lantern, there are many other Chinese ballet works, such as Yellow River, Zhu Fu, Lin Daiyu (The Dream of Red Mansion) and Butterfly Lovers, etc., these ballets have been performed both domestically and abroad, and are well received by the audience.


Are there many ballet companies in China? What is their level, compared to international standards?

As Iíve mentioned previously, there are five professional ballet companies in Mainland China. According to the chronological order of their establishment, the 5 ballet companies are: The National Ballet of China, Shanghai Ballet, Liaoning Ballet, Guangzhou Ballet and Tianjin Ballet. In recent years, dancers from the first 4 ballet companies have gained very good results in international ballet competitions. All Chinese ballet companies are in the phase of development. The potential talent of Chinese ballet dancers is very high, objectively speaking, they have vast space to develop themselves to high levels. Therefore, weíre very confident that in the near future, we can catch up with the first class ballet companies in the world. Through creating our own ballet works, Chinese ballet will present its own unique style.




The National Ballet of China and its future

 

Could you tell us about the hierarchy at the National Ballet Of China? How is the company organized?

The management team of the National Ballet of China is formed by Artistic Director and Deputy Artistic Directors who manage the leaders of different functional departments. The artistic management function is composed of Artistic Executive, Ballet Masters, Ballet Teachers and Regisseurs. The hierarchy of dancers is Prima Ballerina/Chevalier, Principal Dancers A/B, Soloist A/B, Coryphee A/B and Corps de ballet A/B.


As it is a national company, do you have a specific Chinese classical repertoire or are you only focused on western classical dance?

The National Ballet of China is the only national ballet company in China. Our main task is to introduce outstanding foreign classical ballets and contemporary ballet works to Chinese audience; on the other hand, we also focus on the practice of developing and creating of our own ballets. I have already listed part of our own ballets previously.


Are  tours of National Ballet of China planned abroad in the future?

Yes, we have tours abroad every year. In the first half of this year, we are going to have tours in Australia and Korea.


You have been invited as a guest in different companies. Could you tell us about that. And in the future, do you plan to be a guest in companies abroad? Who decides? Where would you like to go? What are your dreams, also concerning partnering?

In 2000, I was invited to work with Huston Ballet of in the U.S.A for 4 months, there I had performed in The Prelude  and in Dracula, as well as took the leading role of Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. In 2001 and 2004, I was invited by Hongkong ballet as guest principal dancer to perform in Swan Lake. In 2002, I was invited by New Zealand Royal Ballet as guest principal dancer to perform in Swan Lake. In February and March this year, I will be invited by Dalas Opera of the U.S.A to perform Le Corsaire with Carlos Acosta. In the National Ballet of China, usually a principal dancer doesnít have a fixed partner, the partner is decided according to each repertoire. I hope I could have opportunities to cooperate with the male etoiles in world-class ballet companies, such as Paris Opera Ballet, Kirov Ballet, British Royal Ballet, American Ballet TheatreÖ In China our performances are not arranged by brokers, our performances are arranged by the company according to companyís working plan. Usually I could be invited to dance with other ballet companies if I get approval from the National Ballet of China.


 

Zhang Jian

Interviewed on January 20th  janvier 2006  

© Zhang Jian Ė Dansomanie
English translation by Enya Chen