While the U.S.-China tariff war rages on, the cultural exchanges continue at full tilt — at least in the dance world. Dozens of American dance artists have recently gone to China to perform or teach, and New York has been treated to major imports. In just the last half year, four large Chinese companies will have arrived at Lincoln Center: Guangzhou Ballet, Liaoning Ballet of China, Lanzhou Song & Dance Theatre and Shanghai Ballet. The last of these comes to the David Koch Theater Jan. 17 to 19 — returning after a successful tour in 2013, when it performed in 22 cities across America and Canada.
For this visit, Shanghai Ballet is bringing “Grand Swan Lake,” choreographed by its artistic director Derek Deane. He originally created a version of the ballet in 1997, when he was artistic director for English National Ballet and had to expand “Swan Lake” to fill the huge, in-the-round Royal Albert Hall. The rapturous Tchaikovsky score will be played live by the New York City Ballet Orchestra and conducted by Charles Barker from American Ballet Theatre.
Deane’s “Grand Swan Lake” has a cast of 80, including a corps of 48 swans. Since the Shanghai Ballet began touring the production in 2015, it has been heralded as visually exciting in many European cities. But what interests me is just one of those 48 swans: the sublime Qi Bingxue. She is scheduled to dance the lead role of Odette/Odile in two of the upcoming performances.
I happened to see her last summer when Shanghai Ballet performed “The White-Haired Girl” at the National Performing Arts Center in Beijing. I was immediately taken with her gracious arms and expressive torso — and something else: a sweetness and delicacy about her head and shoulders. She has a tender vulnerability that makes your heart go out to her. To my eyes, she is the Chinese Gelsey Kirkland.
I am not the only one who has fallen for her. According to Qi Jiang, Professor of Dance at University of Cincinnati, College Conservatory of Music and an international choreographer who visits Shanghai often, “Everybody loves her.”
“She’s a beautiful dancer and also has acting skill,” said Qi Jiang. “When she was in the corps and Lili [Xin Lili, executive director] started using her in featured roles, immediately you can tell she’s a shining star in the company.”
“The White-Haired Girl” is actually the foundation of this company. The ballet was choreographed by a committee led by Hu Rongrong in 1965, but it wasn’t until 1979 that the group took the name Shanghai Ballet. “The White-Haired Girl” is one of two “model ballets” that were acceptable during Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) while almost every other kind of dance was banished. The other model ballet is the more famous “Red Detachment of Women.” In China they are called revolutionary ballets, but in the West they are known as propaganda ballets. Like the portrait of Mao that looms over Tiananmen Square, “The White-Haired Girl” is still a popular ballet in China.
Bingxue, whose name means “snow,” performed the title role of Xi’er with touching sincerity and absolute commitment. Curious about what a young dancer might feel about this old ballet, I asked her in an email. “‘The White-Haired Girl’ is what we call ‘hereditary treasure’ of Shanghai Ballet,” she replied through a translator. “As it is a classic production of our nation, what we ought to do is to inherit it, no matter how time changes, we should perform it exactly the same as our predecessors.”
Bingxue grew up in Hainan, the southernmost province of China, and entered Shanghai Theatre Academy at the age of ten. She worked hard and was accepted into Shanghai Ballet right after graduation in 2014.
Shanghai Ballet is not to be confused with the more established, Beijing-based National Ballet of China. The training in the Shanghai Dance School, part of Shanghai Theatre Academy, is more holistic than that of Beijing Dance Academy, according to Lan-Lan Wang, the Chinese-American dance artist who organizes many cultural exchanges. You might see greater fluidity in Shanghai dancers with a very slight loss of precision. Although Beijing Dance Academy training is world-renowned, it is the Shanghai Theatre Academy that produced the exquisite Yuan Yuan Tan, principal dancer at San Francisco Ballet and the most famous Chinese ballerina on the international scene.
Based on the Russian model of training, the Chinese academies are strict. The students are in classes and rehearsals eight to 10 hours a day and are held to a narrow standard of beauty. According to Qi Jiang, a graduate of Beijing Dance Academy, the women submit to weekly weigh-ins. If they are a few pounds over the mark, they are sent to the men’s class, which means bigger jumps and longer combinations.
During her training, Bingxue watched international ballet stars like Polina Semionova, Svetlana Zakharova and Sylvie Guillem on DVD. Not long after joining the company, she was sent to participate in the Beijing International Ballet and Choreography Competition and, later, the Shanghai International Ballet Competition — for which she won top prizes. While preparing for the Beijing competition, she was also understudying the lead in Patrick de Bana’s “Echoes of Eternity.” Focusing all her attention on the competition, she never imagined she would have to step in to play the lead role. But the dancer playing Lady Yang got sick, and Bingxue had to perform it the day after acing the competition. And then, the roles kept coming.
Now 23, Bingxue has suffered her share of injuries and technical problems. A couple years ago, she incurred a mild lumbar dislocation and sought all kinds of treatment: acupuncture, chiropractic and traditional Chinese massage. In addition, several teachers worked with her to strengthen her core muscles. Qi Jiang, when he was a guest artist in Shanghai, also gave suggestions. “She has extraordinary feet and legs, beautiful arches, but she wasn’t the strongest dancer” he told me in a phone conversation. “That’s why I was giving her Pilates exercises.”
Her highly arched feet needed more support for pirouettes. “Her turns were a little off and she got so stressed,” Qi Jiang said. “I was able to help her pull up a little bit more.” After a period of diligent preparation, and with the help of other teachers, she was able to master the 32 fouettés necessary for the Black Swan coda.
One of the fascinations of any “Swan Lake” is how the ballerina handles the opposing demands of the sad, limpid Odette (White Swan) and the seductive, conniving Odile (Black Swan). Qi Jiang commends Bingxue’s ability to transform from Odette to Odile. “For White Swan and Black Swan, she’s like two different dancers.”
When I asked Bingxue which character she felt closer to, I was surprised by her answer, given the lyricism I observed in her dancing. “Well, I’m not like either of them in real life,” she wrote, “but I found Odile more charming, for she has a strong character.”
This will be Bingxue’s first trip to New York. “I feel really honored and excited to go to [New York City],” she said. “Dancers around the world all dream to perform at Lincoln Center. I’m a little bit nervous, but more excited.”
Her advice for younger dancers? “Watch more, learn more.”
Top Image: Qi Bingxue dancing the role of Odile in Shanghai Ballet's "Grand Swan Lake." Courtesy Shanghai Ballet.