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Company Challenges Classic
Everybody knows the story, so what counts is how to tell it," said stage designer Yi Liming, explaining what was on the mind of all of those working on a totally new Swan Lake production.

The National Ballet of China will stage a re-choreographed version from today to Sunday at the Tianqiao Theatre.

It is sure to be a challenge for the ambitious company, after it successfully produced several new shows like Raise the Red Lanterns, Coppelia and Fountain of Tears over the last two years.

To some degree, revising a successful classic work which has won world-wide popular support for more than a century is much more difficult than creating something fresh.

One of the best classic ballet productions in the world, Swan Lake is also among the permanent repertoire of the National Ballet of China.

In 1959, Pyotr Gusev and some other ballet masters from the former Soviet Union helped to establish the national company, which was based on the Beijing Dance School.

Swan Lake, Giselle and Le Corsaire, choreographed by Gusev, were the first three performances by the company.

The first students of the former Beijing Dance School including Zhao Ruheng, the current president of the company, performed Swan Lake when they had only received three years of training.

"We really have a special love for Swan Lake which connects the memory of our first days on the toes," Zhao said.

Since 1895, Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov's Swan Lake has amazed the world. A number of renowned choreographers have staged their versions to show their own artistic talent. Swan Lake has even become a yardstick to measure the quality of a company.

While in China, only a few companies have performed the full-length ballet well. And the National Ballet of China kept performing Gusev's version until 1996. Ever since, the company has revised the original version slightly.

As early as 2000, Zhao and her ballet masters including Feng Ying and Wang Caijun have thought of producing a new version.

They realized that the dancers and audience were calling for a fresh Swan Lake.

"Many movements we felt were difficult to dance 40 years ago are no problem for today's dancers. They also have a better understanding of the music and the story than my generation," said Zhao, one of the first Odettes in the 1960s.

Feng, who was one of the best Odettes in China in the 1980s and early 1990s, said: "Swan Lake is like an aging classic painting, I want to add some fresh colour." Meanwhile, the audience's taste has developed. Forty years ago, people could only see a few ballet productions, but now they have a rich variety of choices.

Before deciding to produce a new Swan Lake version, Zhao thought about importing an established variation such as Yuri Grigorovich's interpretation, which the Bolshoi Theatre performed in China in 2001.

But she finally gave up as "the version failed to fascinate me as I expected and I am not sure whether it would fascinate Chinese audiences, many of whom are avid Swan Lake fans."

"'Why not choreograph it ourselves,' I asked myself and suggested it to my dancers. I believe we have the ability," Zhao said.

"We are no longer a duckling but a flying white swan."

Strong Cast

With the progress made in the past half century, the company has been establishing its own style.

Twelve dancers are prize winners in international competitions and eight ballerinas have won top awards.

Many of their principal ballerinas have been invited abroad to be guest dancers in prestigious theatres such as the Sweden Royal Ballet, National Ballet of New Zealand and Hong Kong Ballet Company.

Zhao said more importantly, the company had attracted many talented people who interacted perfectly.

Besides Feng Ying, Li Yan and Wang Caijun, the choreography team has a new member Xu Gang, a former principal dancer with the company. He has come back from London after getting a professional diploma in dance at the Laban Centre, learning choreography and modern dance.

In January, they finally started the production. Feng, Li, Wang and Xu, all of whom used to be Odette and prince Siegfried, co-operated on choreography.

Zhu Yan, Zhang Jian and Wang Qiming star as Odette while Sun Jie, Zhang Yao and Li Jun perform as the prince.

However, although they are all talented and confident, the task has not been that easy.

"I feel the pressure," said Wang Caijun, who declined an invitation to give lectures in the US.

"We are exploring how to attract people who are used to the original Swan Lake some even know every step of Odette."

The dances of the original Swan Lake are lyrically symphonic, which is an expression of elegiac grief, continuing sorrow and the illusion of love.

"It is a fact that the level of choreography is inferior to that of dancing in China," Wang admitted.

"But we do want to give it a go."

New Version

The new version is more concise and dramatic, Zhao said. The choreography emphasizes the characterization. The prince and Rothbart, the evil magician, both of whom are support roles in the original version, dance more in the new effort.

Feng choreographs Odette's solo dance in the prelude. Odette is picking flowers in a garden when the curtain is raised and her movements are more complicated than in the original piece.

In act one, the prince has an emotional solo to express his unwillingness to accept the marriage arranged by his mother.

Wang choreographs a variation for Rothbart to connect the first and second acts.

In the third act, the popular dances of the four little swans and the three large swans remain the same as the original.

The royal family hosts a party to choose a wife for the prince. The princesses and daughters of high officials from other countries try to attract the prince's favor.

Wang and Feng have choreographed more dances for the imperial party.

The original Hungarian pas de deux gives way to a Russian piece and the Mazurka, Napoli and Spanish pas de deux are all re-choreographed.

The new version ends with a dramatic pas de deux performed by the prince and Rothbart. They fight with each other for Odette.

The totally fresh costumes, lighting and stage settings contribute to an eye-catching production.

Yi, who has produced many stage settings for popular modern operas, sculptures an imperial palace and garden very different from the original, creating a gorgeous atmosphere.

In the end, when the prince fights Rothbart, a laser light is used to captivate the audience.

(China Daily March 14, 2003)

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