Paris, London, Moscow, Copenhagen, St. Petersburg. And it goes without saying, of course, New York. When ballet enthusiasts ponder the world’s greatest companies, these cities quickly come to mind. Shanghai is generally not among them, but maybe it ought to be.
Since 1979, Shanghai Ballet Company has been dancing classics such as Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, La Sylphide and Coppelia. It was with more unusual fare, in particular a classical Chinese ballet called The White Haired Girl, however, that the company started getting international recognition.
Thanks to Society for The Performing Arts, Shanghai Ballet makes its Houston debut Tuesday at Jones Hall with a full-length production of The Butterfly Lovers. The dance is often considered as a sort of Romeo and Juliet of Chinese folklore, with a story that dates from the Tang Dynasty. The original score is composed by Xu Jianqiang, the libretto is by Luo Huaizhen, and choreography comes from Shanghai Ballet’s artistic director, Xin Lili.
“Generally speaking, women and men (in China) are equal now, but women always sacrifice more to be successful in a professional career.”
Xin spoke to me about her impressive company via email and through an English translator. She explained that she became a member of Shanghai Ballet in 1980, principal dancer in 2000, artistic associate in 2001, and finally artistic director in 2011. The latter does not always go hand-in-hand with being a choreographer. Some ballet companies have artistic directors who are not choreographers (Boston Ballet), and others have choreographers in that same role (Houston Ballet). The field, unquestionably and worldwide, is dominated by men. Being a woman, a former dancer and also a choreographer makes Xin somewhat unique in the ballet world.
“I am lucky to have made the transition from dancer to these positions,” she said. “The major constant for me throughout this process is my love of art and I will happily sacrifice my personal life for this love. In China, men normally pay more attention to their careers than family, but for a woman more it is necessary to sacrifice more to obtain a professional goal. Generally speaking, women and men are equal now, but women always sacrifice more to be successful in a professional career."
Arts for everybody
One of the more intriguing books in my dance library was printed in Peking in 1972, just seven years before Shanghai Ballet formed as a company. It is nicely printed volume containing the libretto, synopsis and score of Red Detachment of Women-A Modern Revolutionary Ballet, with the annotation “Revised Collectively by the China Ballet Troupe (May 1970 script). The color photos are stunning, with captions such as “Wu Ching-hua, Soldier of the Women’s Company, later its Party representative. “ This leading character in the ballet stands smiling and defiant, hands clasped in fists, a leather belt around her military uniform, wearing pointe shoes dyed turquoise to match.
"Now the arts are for everybody, not just workers, farmers and soldiers. Now the arts have a very high position in China."
The quote inside the cover of the book is from Mao Tse-tung: “All our literature and art are for the masses of the people, and in the first place for the workers, peasants and soldiers; they are created for the workers, peasants and soldiers and are for their use.”
Xin seemed perfectly poised to answer my burning if somewhat naïve question, “What has changed in Chinese ballet in the last 40 years?” Her reply is significant.
“Now it is totally different,” she said. “Because at that time in our history, we had very few ballet productions, so everyone knew that one. Now the arts are for everybody, not just workers, farmers and soldiers. Now the arts have a very high position in China. Ballet is an excellent form to carry on the classical arts and gives us a very good international platform which the world is already familiar with.
"We create productions based on classical Chinese stories and classical world literature. The Shanghai Ballet Company is a cultural ambassador for China. We tour all over the world to let people know about the Chinese culture, and tell stories with universal themes and emotions.”
Houstonians, of course, are somewhat familiar with watching Chinese classical ballet dancers. One of the greatest to come to the West and land here in Houston is Li Cunxin, author of the stunning autobiography Mao’s Last Dancer. I was surprised to learn from Xin that not many dancers have read his book in China, since it was written in English.
“Cunxin Li’s story happened in a special time,” said Xin, “but Li is of my generation. Now China is developing rapidly, the dancers are more concerned with their own careers and chances to present themselves in a variety of roles. They want more opportunities to express themselves on the stage.
"Our dancers are contracted, which means they are free to come and go from our company. This works mutually well for both sides as we are able to pick any dancers any time and likewise for them.”
The program notes for Xin’s evening-length four-act ballet The Butterfly Lovers are mesmerizing, with descriptive narratives such as “Grief and loneliness penetrates through autumn leaves,” and “spring returns to the good earth, it is a beautiful and colorful world.” See for yourself, Tuesday at Jones Hall.