writers on dancing


From China, Beautiful Dancing

"Giselle," "Once Upon a Time," "Piercing the Heart," and "The Yellow River
National Ballet of China
Eisenhower Theater
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, DC
October 4, 2005

by Alexandra Tomalonis
copyright ©2005 by Alexandra Tomalonis  

The National Ballet of China opened its one-week run at the Kennedy Center with a mixed bill headed by the second act of “Giselle”. It’s rare to see a production of a 19th century classic as lovingly staged and danced as this—will the West’s great ballet classics be preserved in the East in the Pacific Century?

NBC’s “Giselle,” presented here as part of a month-long, sold out Festival of China—was staged by two students Anton Dolin in 1960, according to the Kennedy Center press office, and contains some lovely touches that have long been lost elsewhere. For example, Wifrid runs on at the beginning of the act and tries to persuade Albrecht to leave—a parallel scene to the similar conversation that begins Act I, but a more urgent one here, as Albrecht's life, not merely his reputation, is in danger. The Wilis dance wearing long wedding veils for most of the act’s opening ballet blanc; the veils themselves seem to dance, creating a mist-like illusions, and making the Wilis' movements seem even more light and flowing. This staging also restores a half-minute mime speech by Giselle: she stands behind the mourning Albrecht and reminds us that she had loved him and he had not married her, and that she is sad.

The dancing was very correct, but beautifully soft (despite toe shoes whose clatter would wake the dead, as it were). If I have a complaint, it’s that Giselle (Wang Qimin) and Albrecht (Li Jun) had a formal, court-like relationship rather than dancing with deathless passion. Myrtha (Zhu Yan) was imperious in her manner and in her jumps, and the corps was exceptionally well-disciplined.

The program was designed to show several aspects of Chinese ballet—a classic, two contemporary works, and a show-stopping finale. The two contemporary ballets were a refreshing change from their Western counterparts, one based on gymnastics, the second on the martial arts. 

The first piece, the gymnastics one, was listed in the program as “Remembrance,” with the following brief libretto: “Those we cherish in our memories have gone with the wind, yet the shining movements in the past have transformed into raindrops falling upon us in the present world.” Since the two dancers (Zhang Jian and Wu Yan), were dressed in nighties and playfully grappled with a pillow—with which she pounded him at the end—I’m glad Sarah Kaufman pointed out, in her review in the Washington Post, that this was an error and that the ballet was really Fei Bo's "Once Upon a Time". The second, “Piercing the Heart,” seemed to be a tense power struggle between a warrior and a lady. 

The finale, “The Yellow River,” suggested that the Bolshoi style is alive and well and living in China. This is the kind of whole-souled heroic ballet where brave youths and lithesome maidens leap and turn and make the audience want to join whatever cause they’re selling. It also proved the old adage that “Nothing succeeds like excess,” especially when the virtuosic moves are performed by such appealing dancers.  How can you not smile, when 16 men, in groups of four, do touch-your-toes-split jumps, row by row (as the first row goes down, the one behind them goes up), and then 16 women, four by four, fly across the stage in grands jetés—each at exactly the same height, while holding hands? 

The dancers are gifted with the ability to dance for an audience without pandering to it, and was greeted with a very warm, sustained standing ovation. The one disappointment was the lack of an orchestra (!!!) and the fact that the company had to perform at the small Eisenhower Theater which, while a wonderful place in which to watch plays and smaller dance companies, is too small for such a large troupe. While the dancers graciously scaled down their dancing to fit the space, this shouldn't have been necessary. Opera reigns at the Kennedy Center now; the Washington Opera is ensconced in the Opera House autumn and spring, and dance must make do with whatever space is left over.

Volume 3, No. 37
October 10, 2005
copyright ©2005 Alexandra Tomalonis



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last updated on October 10, 2005