Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Watered-Down Petipa

During China’s Cultural Revolution, ballet was the only Western art form permitted to flourish, a circumstance connected to China’s status as a client state of the U.S.S.R.

As many as 200 Russian teachers of dance lived and worked in China throughout The Cultural Revolution, all for the purpose of reproducing the Russian dance industry in China.

The effort did not work: hoards of agitprop ballets were the only results, all of which disappeared as soon as The Cultural Revolution collapsed of its own weight. However, a regimen of Russian training had been put into place that allowed China to develop dancers to a high standard—and to establish new ballet companies beginning as early as the late 1970s, a period during which China was just beginning to open to the West.

According to dance experts, China’s leading ballet company is The National Ballet Of China; the next-finest company is said to be Shanghai Ballet.

Last evening, my parents, my middle brother, and Joshua and I attended a performance of Shanghai Ballet at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Minneapolis (my sister-in-law took a pass, which is why my middle brother, who can tolerate ballet, accompanied us).

Given China’s dance history, we were expecting Russian-style dancing . . . but we didn’t get it (and we were not disappointed on that account).

The Shanghai dancers did not display the strong, supple, heavily-arched backs of Russian dancers. The volatile, expressive, fluttery arms typical of Russian dancers were also not to be seen. The Chinese male dancers had not been groomed to demonstrate flashy athleticism and brute power, the primary attributes of Russian male dancers.

Instead, the Shanghai dancers looked little different than American dancers in their training: speed, clean lines and unaffected grace were what the dancers were going for—and by and large achieved. Based upon what we saw, it appears that American ballet training has now superseded Russian ballet training in China; there was no Russian-style exaggeration on view all night.

The choreography, however, was a different matter: EVERYTHING onstage was a rehash of Marius Petipa. The choreography was either geometric ensemble numbers a la the surviving fragments from “Paquita” or caractéristique dances a la Act III of “Swan Lake”—and nothing more. If a visitor had entered the theater blind, he would have been justified in assuming that he was watching a revival of some quaint 1901 ballet choreographed by one of Petipa’s less-talented assistants toward the end of the Petipa epoch, which had become stale and formulaic in its final years.

Alas, the ballet we were seeing had been created, not in 1901, but in 2001. It was disconcerting to watch such a work, recognizing in every step and in every device a direct steal from the Petipa playbook, with nothing freshened, nothing updated.

“The Butterfly Lovers” was the name of last night’s evening-length, four-act ballet. Based upon an ancient Chinese fable, “The Butterfly Lovers” is a Chinese version of the Romeo and Juliet tale—except the young lovers in “The Butterfly Lovers” are transformed into butterflies after their deaths.

“The Butterfly Lovers” was danced to a sickly-sweet Chinese score especially commissioned for the ballet. The stage décor was very old-fashioned—ancient photographs of original Petipa stagings must have provided the inspiration—and the costumes looked like discards from the original 1927 production of “The Red Poppy”.

The presentation was not offensive; on occasion, it even verged on being fun. However, “The Butterfly Lovers” is not the sort of thing designed to appeal to American dance audiences—it is designed to appeal to a Chinese “Nutcracker” audience.

And this probably accounts for the fact that “The Butterfly Lovers” is being toured nowhere near American dance centers; its presentation is deliberately being limited—by Columbia Artists Management, the American tour coordinator—to cities without sophisticated dance audiences.

We went because we were curious—and we had no trouble sitting through the thing.

However, it must be said that The Northrop Dance Series has been presenting a lot of sub-par stuff the last three seasons.

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