"The Red Detachment of Women" Excerpts, "Swan Lake" Act 2, "The Yellow River"
The National Ballet of China
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
September 22, 2011
by George Jackson
copyright 2011 by George Jackson
Determination to do things right technically and spiritually showed in the company's performance. Whether the ballet was a Western classic ("Swan Lake") or a Mme. Mao heirloom ("The Red Detachment of Women") or a logo for today's communal capitalism ("The Yellow River"), these precisely trained dancers wanted to appear sincere. I fell in love them the last time they were here because they not only tried but triumphantly brought their ballets ("Giselle" Act 2 and "Raise the Red Lantern") to life. That didn't happen consistently this time, at least not on opening night. Still, there was much to admire.
Closest to convincing was "Red Detachment". Even though its heroes and villains are devoid of depth and turn all they touch into melodrama, beneath the cardboard were hearts that throb. Zhu Yan, who danced the heroine, relished her role's perils - leaps with the rear leg bent as if to scalp, whirlwind spins, arabesques stretched like suspension bridge cables and endless manhandling by bad guys. As the heroine's savior and potential love, Zhou Zhaohui was pliantly, humanely noble while also giving his relationship to a young sidekick some humor. As the youth, Wang Hao stood his ground. Jiang Wei and Huang Zhen were juicy villains. None of the cast caricatured the proceedings but by showing that these were performances - examples of skilled acting and dancing - they made "Red Detachment" plausible. The 1964 choreography by Li Chengxiang, Jiang Zuhui and Wang Xixian interwove ballet, gymnastics and pantomime but did not not merge them.
There was movement fusion in Chen Zemei's 1999 "The Yellow River". This plotless piece draws on ballet, acrobatics and plastique to build human architecture and dynamic climaxes. The aim is to express the turbulence of river currents and the brave spirit of humans trying to cross the river. This group work, led by a handsome and streamlined couple - Zhang Jian and Xing Liang, had more enthusiasm than subtlety.
"Swan Lake" Act 2 was shown in a fairly standard Soviet version, although a few rectangular groupings seemed changed to circular ones. This may have been an accommodation to the medium size of the Eisenhower Theater. Certainly the company could have used a bigger stage. The swan corps danced at a rather fast pace. It was reliably strong, efficient dancing but hadn't the melancholy and hint of fragility that the Maryinsky Ballet's corps brings to these passages. Also absent was sufficient contrast between the clockwork attack of the four cygnettes on the one hand and. on the other, the denser texture of the three big solo swans. As the queen of the swans, Odette, Wang Quimin concentrated on line and articulation and did so with finesse. However, she conveyed little of the figure's sculptural volume or of her sorrow's weight whereas Li Jun's Prince Siegfried did show his role's yearning.
Some women's groupings in "Yellow River" resembled a flock of swans. Perhaps putting "Swan Lake" on the same bill as "Yellow River" diminished what should have been stylistic differences.