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China hosts first international ballet competition.

SHANGHAI--FOR the first time in its history, Shanghai will be in the ballet spotlight when it hosts China's first international ballet competition, October 6-14. The competition comes at a time of unprecedented governmental financial backing, corporate support, and popular acclaim for ballet in China.

"Businesses are very warm to support us," says Yang Yang Ling, artistic director of Shanghai Ballet. Ling spoke with Dance Magazine when his company made its U.S. debut last May in San Francisco at San Francisco Ballet's UNited We Dance. A glossy, hundred-page-plus guide to Shanghai Ballet, paid for by China Eastern Air Group, is full of photographs of dancers and advertisements for underwear, vans, hair-salon equipment, and banks. The book also promotes Shanghai Ballet's repertoire, including standards like The White-haired Girl, Red Detachment of Women, Sacred Song, and Painting of Heart. The company, founded in 1979, also has mounted Coppelia (in a new version choreographed by Ling), Don Quixote, Nutcracker, and Romeo and Juliet

The Russian heritage is apparent in Ling's work; his mentor was former Kirov Ballet and Bolshoi Ballet School director Pyotr Gusev. The lineage was obvious in Peach Blossom Pond, the ballet Ling brought to San Francisco, with its attention to supported adagio, a Gusev trademark. Ling, fifty-five years old, made his name as one of the co-creators of The White-haired Girl, the seminal ballet of Communist China. The story concerns a peasant woman who flees a landlord after he tries to claim her as payment of a debt owed by her father. The heroine holes up on a mountain for years, until her hair turns white. She is rescued by her lover after the revolution. A government newspaper praised the ballet in 1967 as one of a number of "revolutionary Peking ballets reflecting the brilliance of Mao Tse-tung's thought."

These days, Ling says through his government provided translator, there are no strings attached to official financial support. "Every company or school can do what it wants artistically," he insists. He can't make ballets about politics, Ling allows, but he can produce dances about modern life in China without government interference. "Since Shanghai is now opening to reform, the circumstances and atmosphere there are very rich, and this influences me," he says. Reforms also have extended to ballet company operations; dancers now work on yearly rather than lifetime contracts. The average age of Shanghai Ballet's forty-five dancers is twenty-five, and that will drop next year when twenty teenaged graduates of Shanghai Ballet School are added to the company.

Shanghai's repertoire includes works by international choreographers, classical ballets, and newer works that use classical technique and Chinese folk dance to tell Chinese folk stories, often with folk accoutrements. In Peach Blossom Pond, for example, the corps danced while carrying red lanterns. Ballets promoting social awareness remain popular. The White-haired Girl, with 1,300 performances, is still the most frequently requested work on tours, Ling says.

The troupe's recent touring schedule included six months traveling around China and visits to Taiwan, Indonesia, and Hong Kong. This year, Ling hopes to squeeze in about eighty low-cost performances for students in his home city.

"We always go to schools and universities to give special performances, and the prices are very low so that we can have more audiences later," says Ling, echoing a concern common to Western ballet company directors.

Another concern Ling shares with artistic directors everywhere is his dancers' well-being. The thin dancer who thinks she's too fat and starves herself into a state approaching torpor is not a uniquely Western syndrome. The problem is even more acute for his dancers, Ling says, because Asians tend to be thin to start with. "Asian people usually are short and quite slim, and their bones are not so big," he says. "When they dance, they need to eat more and drink more, but they are afraid they will become fat and not so good-looking as a dancer. But if they don't eat more and drink more, then as a dancer they cannot become very strong."
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Author:Ben-Itzak, Paul
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Interview
Date:Oct 1, 1995
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