Last year’s was a busy season for the National Ballet of China and its artistic director, Ms. Feng Ying. The company was in New York City for the Fall for Dance Festival, where the company had its US première of The Peony Pavilion in October 2014, followed by the performance of John Neumeier's The Little Mermaid at the China Shanghai International Arts Festival in the same month. The Red Detachment of Women was touring in China and abroad celebrating the work's 50th anniversary. On her first day back to home base in Beijing, Feng, poised and elegant, graciously made time for us to meet.

© The National Ballet of China
© The National Ballet of China

"We don't just dance Russian and Chinese ballets", Feng stated proudly, before adding: "we also dance French, German, English works.....".  The company's recent performances demonstrate its diverse repertoire, that includes works by Natalia Makarova, Roland Petit, Anton Dolin among others. Feng enthusiastically invites foreign choreographers and dancers to work with the company and just as eagerly sends her dancers for engagements abroad. Two of her dancers went to the International Ballet Festival in Havana in the autumn, where they performed a classical pas de deux from Le Corsaire and a modern duet by an in-house ( National Ballet of China) choreographer.

Feng's zeal for intercultural exchange is reminiscent of that which first brought the western imperial art form to China. "Ballet was introduced to China by Europeans as early as the Qing dynasty, and some Chinese dancers went to train in Europe," explained Feng. "Around the time the Republic was formed, those dancers returned and some Russian teachers came to China. Also, the Bolshoi Ballet performed here and that brought us further exposure. All this provided the right circumstances to establish the Beijing Dance Academy in 1954. " Less than four years later, its students made the inaugural performance of Swan Lake as the Experimental Ballet Company, which later became the National Ballet of China. The Cultural Revolution abruptly stifled this exchange and the company, as an emissary of culture, became a vehicle for the expression of the country's political ideology. The Red Detachment of Women, which premièred in 1964, still stirs nationalistic pride while being a painful reminder of those arduous times. Its resurgence in popularity today reflects a recognition of its power and perhaps, a reconciliation with that past. 

<i>The Red Detachment of Women</i> © The National Ballet of China
The Red Detachment of Women
© The National Ballet of China

It may seem difficult for today's generation of dancers to grasp the sentiment of past ballets. But as Feng pointed out, "The most important quality for dancers is to have imagination, to be able to empathize with the characters and find evidence for the story. They must study each piece for its own merit and understand it for themselves, not just imitate."

Today, the company's artistry is structured around three pillars. Feng explained, "Our first mission is the Russian school of classical ballets, which the company was founded on. The second mission is Chinese ballets like The Red Detachment of Women, The Peony Pavilion and Raise The Red Lantern; these ballets tell our stories. We have a Chinese version of The Nutcracker, which takes place not during Christmas, but in the most festive time of Chinese culture - the New Year celebrations."

The company's third mission is in developing the company's modern repertoire and in commissioning new work by young artists.  "We need to develop new choreographers and new talent that expresses today's times," said Feng, to address what she feels is a deficiency in contemporary dance in China. The company has a 'Young Choreographer's Program', which develops choreographers in-house, giving them opportunities to create their work on, and perform them with the company's dancers.

<i>The Peony Pavillon</i>, Zhang Jian and the corps de ballet © The National Ballet of China
The Peony Pavillon, Zhang Jian and the corps de ballet
© The National Ballet of China
Almost all dancers of the company are selected from the Beijing Dance Academy where the curriculum includes ballet, as well as Chinese classical and modern dance. Though Feng is eager to invite foreign dancers as guests, she has no intentions to hire them as full-time company members. "There wouldn't be enough work for them here," Feng said frankly, "Chinese ballets are a large part of our repertoire and foreign dancers wouldn't suit those roles."  She responded thoughtfully to the common criticism that Chinese ballet dancers are strong in technique but reserved in emotional expression. "Sometimes the criticism is acceptable; dance is not only in the technique. Our young dancers are well trained technically, but may lack the emotion or drama. Over time, as they grow into their twenties and thirties, and with experience, their personality will develop with each role and through the characters they portray."

Feng is also keenly aware of the need to nurture the company’s audience.  "When the company performed Swan Lake in 1958," she says, "many of our audiences had not seen ballet before. Although it was a foreign art form and our audiences were, at first, a little embarrassed by the short skirts, they fell in love with ballet. Ballet is beautiful and beauty is universal."  Today, Chinese audiences want more than just beauty. Feng explained, "I've spoken with artistic directors here and abroad, and we all face similar challenges. The classics like Swan Lake and Giselle will always sell lots of tickets and for us, The Red Detachment of Women is equally popular.  But unlike Europe, China doesn't have a long history in ballet, so our audience has evolved differently. It's not so much the genre as the fact that the audience likes what it knows

The Chinese New Year ( NBC Nutcracker) © The National Ballet of China
The Chinese New Year ( NBC Nutcracker)
© The National Ballet of China
For example, La Bayadère is a popular classical ballet in Europe, but the Chinese audience is not familiar with the story, and so it doesn't attract a large audience here. To a certain extent, we also have loyal ballet fans who want to see modern ballets in the style of Roland Petit and William Forsythe, and who appreciate the work of Pina Bausch, but it's a smaller audience by comparison."  The company creates opportunities for audiences to familiarise themselves with ballet through interactive events such as panel discussions pre and post performances, and live dancing in schools and universities to introduce ballet to the younger generation.

Feng has steadily guided the company since she was appointed as its Artistic Director in 2009.  With equal attention to the artists, the audience and an observant eye to the dance community at large, Feng ensures that ballet in China evolves not just as an art form of universal beauty, but also as a powerful voice that is current and uniquely Chinese.