A man who sets the tone

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Conductor Zhang Yi celebrated his 20th anniversary as the music director of the symphony orchestra of the National Ballet of China with performances of a Chinese version of the ballet classic The Nutcracker, staged at Beijing's Tianqiao Theater from Thursday to Sunday.

This version of the world-famous ballet is called Guo Nian in Chinese, literally translated as "celebrating the New Year". The adaptation moves the story from its traditional setting of Christmas to Spring Festival, a time for family reunions. It also adds traditional cultural elements, such as the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac.

With music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, the Chinese version of The Nutcracker premiered in 2000 and has been staged annually during Spring Festival.

"My story with the National Ballet of China started with Tchaikovsky's music," says Zhang, 50, who became the artistic director of the symphony orchestra of the National Ballet of China in 2002. "I have been working with the company for 20 years and I want to celebrate it with Tchaikovsky's music."

In 1996, Zhang, a teacher in the conducting department of the Central Conservatory of Music, was invited by Zhao Ruheng, then the artistic director of the National Ballet of China, to conduct the company's symphony orchestra for the ballet piece, Swan Lake.

What does the ballet conductor really do? Does the conductor simply lead the orchestra as an accompaniment to the dancing? Or, is the conductor a full participant in the creative process?

Zhang, 24 back then, asked himself the same questions.

Trained to become a classical musician, he learned to play the violin at the age of 5 and graduated from the Central Conservatory of Music with a major in conducting. His whole career was about conducting classical concerts and operas. Ballet was new to him.

As a young student, Zhang watched Swan Lake performed by the National Ballet of China, but he never expected to become a ballet conductor.

Zhao invited Zhang to watch the dancers of the National Ballet of China train, which allowed Zhang to better understand the art form.

One day, when ballerina Zhang Jian danced in the rehearsal room, she cried because her feet were hurt and bleeding. Feng Ying, then the chief training coach of the company, who was also a famous ballerina, stopped the rehearsal and walked to Zhang Jian.

"Can you dance or not?" Feng asked. "Yes," Zhang Jian wiped her tears and continued to dance.

"I was shocked. She was bleeding but she didn't stop dancing. For the first time, I realized that ballet is beautiful but cruel. I started to observe the dancers and tried to capture their movements with musical notes in my head," recalls Zhang Yi.

The performance of Swan Lake was successful and Zhang Yi, as a young conductor, was recognized by audiences and critics and achieved renown on the classical music scene.

For Zhang Yi, the collaboration taught him that a ballet conductor must not only do everything a symphony orchestra conductor does in the concert hall, but is also required to work with choreographers and dancers. Unlike performing a concert, the interpretation of the music must be closely connected with the dancers, yet still remain true to the composer's intention.

"It takes considerable artistry for the conductor to instantly adjust the music to what the dancers are doing, or adjust the music to what the conductor feels the dancer is capable of doing at that precise moment," says Zhang Yi. To reach that level of collaborative artistry, the ballet conductor must not only know the music, but also the choreography, as well as the abilities and personalities of the individual dancers.

Unlike a recording, every performance to live music is slightly different and all the dancers must constantly adjust to subtle changes in tempo and mood, he adds.

After that first experience of conducting a ballet piece, Zhang returned to his regular performances, spending a large portion of his time conducting operas and symphonic works, as well as teaching at the university.

In 2001, when Zhang pursued a master's degree in the Hochschule fur Musik Saar (University of Music Saar), with renowned German conductor Max Pommer as his teacher, he was invited by the National Ballet of China to conduct its ballet piece, Raise the Red Lantern.

Adapted from the movie of the same name, the ballet piece was directed by Zhang Yimou, who was also the film's director, composed by Chen Qigang and choreographed by Wang Xinpeng.

"I was very excited because the creative team behind the ballet gathered the top Chinese artists and my first collaboration with the company (in 1996) was very inspiring to me," says Zhang Yi, adding that, as a young conductor, he worked with composer Chen, conducting some of his contemporary music works, which allowed them to become friends.

The ballet piece, Raise the Red Lantern, proved to be a great success and since its premiere, it has been staged more than 400 times at home and abroad.

In 2002, upon finishing his studies in Germany, Zhang was appointed music director of the symphony orchestra of the National Ballet of China.

He worked with the company on its original ballet pieces, such as The Red Detachment of Women, The Crane Calling and Yimeng, as well as its renditions of Western classical ballet works, like Giselle and Don Quixote.

Zhang Yi also had a vision to have the symphony orchestra, which, performing in the orchestra pit, used to be ignored compared with other national symphony orchestras in China, be seen onstage.

The conductor has led the orchestra to perform across the country. After the National Centre for the Performing Arts was launched in 2007, the ensemble gave lots of concerts at the venue, which gradually gained it a large fan base. Since 2011, it has been giving a year-end concert at the NCPA, and what made Zhang Yi proud is that "it has expanded its repertories and not a single year-end concert had a program that repeated itself from the previous year", he says.

In 2015, Zhang Yi led the symphony orchestra to perform at Palais des Nations, the United Nations Office in Geneva, Switzerland, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the World Anti-Fascist War. It was the first time that the symphony orchestra had performed outside China.

Zhang Yi's 20th anniversary celebration is part of the National Ballet of China's "20-year" series, which celebrates dancers, choreographers and musicians of the company who have made outstanding contributions to its development.

"During the past 20 years, Zhang Yi has helped the symphony orchestra of the company move up to the next level. We move on together to the next 20 years," says Feng Ying, the artistic director of the company.

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