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Holiday Feast for Dance Fans

The Christmas and New Year's holidays are a favorite time of year for Beijing dance aficionados, with a wide variety of stage productions to choose from.

This year offers one of the most diverse lineups ever, with the month-long First Beijing International Dance Festival featuring some 50 shows, beginning with China Oriental Song and Dance Troupe's performances and ending with three shows by a star-studded ensemble to celebrate the 100th birthday of George Balanchine.

Fans of classic ballet will be treated to four productions of Swan Lake and two of Sleeping Beauty while the contemporary offerings include China National Ballet's Raise the Red Lanterns and The Red Detachment of Women.

As well, the National Academic Ballet Theatre of the Republic of Belarus is presenting Romeo & Juliet, the Alberta Ballet from Canada will perform Carmen and The Winter Room and the Florence May Dance Company from Italy will also be showcased.

Canadian talent

Alberta Ballet's Carmen and The Winter Room will be staged at the Beijing Exhibition Hall Theatre on January 9 and 10.

It's the second time the Canadian company has toured China.

"We are proud to be invited to this prestigious international event. Not only are we showcasing our talented dancers, we are also performing acclaimed repertoire that was created for our company," says Jean Grand-Maitre who was appointed the company's artistic director last year after working internationally for 12 years as an independent choreographer.

"Participating in this festival confirms the international calibre of Alberta Ballet," says Grand-Matire.

During the 2002-03 season the 36-year-old choreographed Carmen to public and critical acclaim and staged the highly praised pas de deux The Winter Room.

Incorporating a bullfight, a knife fight, murder and plenty of sensual scenes, it seems like an unlikely mix for a ballet, but it's all part of Alberta Ballet's production of Carmen, choreographed by Grand-Maitre.

Drawing on Rodion Shchedrin's Carmen Suite and Georges Bizet's famous opera Carmen, Alberta Ballet's multi-media version of the romantic Spanish tale tells the gritty story of a femme fatal who leaves a trail of broken hearts and ruined lives in her wake.

Opening with a street scene outside a cigarette factory in Seville, the ballet follows Carmen as she manipulates every man around her. But when she casts her spell on young soldier Don Jose, the seeds of a great love story are sown.

Don Jose dumps his fiancee, gives up his job and becomes a criminal, all out of love for Carmen. But she tosses him aside when the celebrated toreador Escamillo comes on the scene. Don Jose is heartbroken, and the wheels are set in motion for the inevitable tragedy.

"It's almost like she's a poisonous snake or spider," says Kelley McKinlay, who plays the doomed Don Jose.

"She bites you and it takes a second for the venom to go through your veins and take over your body. That's exactly what happens here. He throws away everything. Carmen comes into the picture and you can see his whole world change."

"This deals with everything -- love, passion, jealousy and murder," says Sabrina Matthews, who dances the title role of the fiery-tempered gypsy.

For Matthews, Carmen is an exciting change of pace from traditional ballet.

"It's such a refreshing character to play," she explains. "It's not some fairytale ballet where you come out and have to smile and be pretty and elegant. Carmen's personality is so complex. I don't think I've ever played somebody who has so many deep emotions. She's very rough and very rugged.

"She's bitter about living in a man's world, but she also realizes how to use her talents to get where she wants to go. And then she has a vulnerable side that you see in the scene in the ballet where she falls in love with Don Jose."

Grand-Maitre's neo-classical choreography for Carmen, with its generous touch of Spanish flavor, provides plenty of physical challenges for Matthews and McKinlay, as does the stage-fighting.

This modern telling of Carmen's story combines selected arias from Bizet's opera performed live by soprano Linda Faye Miller and video created by Kenneth Doren. The images feature footage of actual bullfights and closeups of the principal characters in the story.

The brutality in the ring is contrasted with the beauty of Carmen's eyes or a single rose. It's a spectacular staging intended to reinforce the action and provide new insights into the characters, particularly Carmen.

Wind from Cuba

Alicia Alonso's version of Swan Lake will be staged at the Great Hall of the People from January 12 to 14. It's part of the National Ballet of Cuba's world tour to celebrate the 55th anniversary of its foundation

Alonso found the Alonso Ballet Company in Havana in 1948 and renamed it the National Ballet of Cuba in 1959.

Featuring spectacular soloists, superb technique and a unique corps de ballet, Alonso's troupe is regarded as one of the most prestigious and exciting classical ballet companies in the world.

Its artistic and technical purity as well as diverse aesthetic conceptions have granted the company major stature among international dance institutions.

Swan Lake probably has the most versions of any ballet in the classic repertoire. The choreographies inspired by the original of Petipa and Ivanov have been performed in different countries, signed by choreographers such as Alexander Gorsky, Mijail Fokin, Mijail Mordkin and George Balanchine.

By the end of 1953, the English maitre and choreographer Mary Skeaping reproduced Swan Lake for Alonso's company, based on a version by Sergueiev.

The premiere was in Havana in 1954, with Alonso in the roles of Odette and Odile.

Alonso immediately began careful work with the choreography, the style and the plot of Swan Lake.

She took up all the known elements and followed a strict criteria to set the style of this ballet, apart from outlining the narrative coherence of the plot.

Her choreography includes moments of great virtuosity, not only when the dance is purely academic, but also in the dances that show character.

The choreographic work developed by Alonso in Swan Lake has been closely linked to her brilliant performance in the roles of Odette and Odile, and had a long process of purification and strict research that lasted several decades.

Her task included a careful study of the folklore traditions and also the legends that inspired the libretto, as well as a detailed analysis of the score written by Tchaikovsky.

Contrary to other versions, here love and good triumph over the evil forces: Siegfried defeats Rothbart and exorcizes the spell, the swans turn into beautiful maidens, the ruins that are around the lake disappear, and the palace of princess Odette emerges intact from the water in an ending that perfectly complements the romantic aesthetics.

Alonso likes to quote Stravinski's statement that tradition is a live force that encourages the present. Her versions of the classics such as Giselle, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker and Coppelia, are examples of this belief.

The balance between tradition and contemporary expression is a sign of the work she has made with the classics and the company has in its repertoires.

"It is about the rescue of the essence of romanticism and classicism," the artist says, "making them viable for today's audience which is, in my judgment, the best way to pay respect to the classics."

Russian glamour

It is surely a blessing that Russia's most fabled dance companies come every year to demonstrate world-class ballet to China's legions of dance fans. This time, two from Russia and one from Belarus will dominate the capital's dance festival.

The first will be the Russian Festival Ballet's productions of Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake at Tianqiao Theatre from Saturday to next Wednesday.

The company was formed in 1990 by Russia's leading dancer, Timour Fayziev. It was stocked with many of Russia's premier ballet soloists and blessed by the legendary Rudolf Nureyev, who chose the troupe for what would be his final tour of Europe.

Meanwhile, the 70-year-old National Academic Ballet Theater of the Republic of Belarus will perform at the Beijing Exhibition Hall Theatre from Saturday to next Friday, presenting Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet.

The 23-year-old Svetlana Pesetskaya plays Odetta. Her style of acting has features of penetrate lyricism, sincerity, naturalness and generosity. Her prince is emotional and powerful Igor Artamonov, who also portrays Romeo in Romeo and Juliet.

The Imperial Russian Ballet will stage Sleeping Beauty at the Beijing Exhibition Hall Theatre from January 3 to 5.

The company was created in April 1994 by Bolshoi Theatre soloist Gedeminas Taranda and Nikolai Anokhine, soloist from Igor Moiseyev's Folk Dance Company on the initiative of famous Russian ballerina Maija Plisetzkaya, who became honorary president of the company.

It consists of 40 artists from the best ballet schools in Russia: Moscow, St Petersburg and Perm. Many famous Russian ballet stars have co-operated with the company.

The Florence Ballet will perform modern ballet highlights choreographed by American choreographer Karole Armitage at the Beijing Exhibition Hall Theatre from January 6 to 8.

Armitage is one of the most original talents on the modern dance scene and her hallmark style mixes classical ballet, modern dance and contemporary movement.

In 1996, Armitage took up the appointment as choreographer for The Florence Ballet.

(China Daily December 25, 2003)


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