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Dancer-turned President Takes Ballet Company Global

Just flying back from South Korea where she worked as a jury member for the South Korea International Ballet Competition, Zhao Ruheng, president of the National Ballet of China, is immersed in two projects:

One is producing Roland Petit's Carmen, L'Arlesienne and Le Jeune Homme et la Mort, which will be staged in November. The other is the company's US tour in late September and October, including participating in Festival of China with four shows.

Her office desk was covered by documents related to the US tour. The secretary came in to tell her some American journalists had called to interview her about the tour and some were awaiting her answers by e-mail.

Her interview with China Daily was interrupted from time to time by phone calls for all kinds of matters.

But this is not a special day for the 61-year-old ballerina-turned president.

"I am busy like today every day," Zhao said. "I have gotten used to it and enjoy what I do for the company."

The company's US tour is routine for her.

Since its US premiere in 1986, the National Ballet of China has established a good relationship with the ICM Artists Ltd, which arranges every US tour for the company.

Yet Zhao admits that the company treasures the opportunity to perform at the Kennedy Center, which is one of the best venues for ballet in the world.

So when the Kennedy Center asked for Raise the Red Lantern, she also recommended a programme of mixed repertory including The Rainbow of the Night, Yellow River, Attraction, Remembrance and excerpts from the classical ballet Giselle.

"I want to showcase the diversity of our company," Zhao said. "Raise the Red Lantern enjoys an international reputation since we have toured many European and Asian countries. Beyond that, we can dance classical repertory, and we also have short modern ballets created by our young but talented choreographers."

In the past few years, Chinese ballerinas have impressed followers of the Western dance scene by winning numerous medals at international competitions. But now Chinese choreographers are also coming to the fore.

In some recent competitions such as the US International Ballet Competition held in Jackson, Mississippi, the Bulgarian Ballet Competition and the Finnish Ballet Competition, Chinese choreographers won prizes.

"The power of Chinese ballet has impressed the world, but it does not mean we are the same as Opera de Paris, the New York City Ballet or the Kirov," Zhao said.

She pointed out that Chinese ballerinas have both technical virtuosity and ability to portray the roles, but they have much smaller repertoires than those from these famous companies.

"Our dancers badly need chances and repertoires to widen their vision," she said.

"Now Roland Petit is directing his Carmen for us. The piece challenges our dancers so much because the choreography is too new for them to make it their own."

This problem has troubled her since she was a dancer. She is aware ballet has a very short history in China, and the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) slowed down its development.

Since she was appointed the president of the company in 1993, Zhao has emphasized enriching the repertoire.

Every year, the company revives a classic work as well as produces one or two new ballets. The widely acclaimed Raise the Red Lantern was born in 2002 under just such an initiative.

Zhao seizes every chance to invite established foreign choreographers to collaborate with the National Ballet of China, and training the dancers and choreographing new productions.

As the company's financial condition gets better and better and Chinese ballet attracts increasing attention in the world ballet scene, Zhao gets many chances to tour abroad every year.

She and her colleagues have also had many chances to take part in international conferences, meet renowned artists, judge competitions and take the company to perform abroad.

She has also introduced training and educational programmes for the company's comprehensive development. "Ballet is not simply jump, spin or dance on tiptoe; it is an art related to music, theatre, culture, history and fine arts," she explained.

In her role as president for the last 12 years, Zhao has made many contributions to the progress of Chinese ballet.

She has reformed the management of the State-owned company, presented new productions and sent star dancers to learn and work with big ballet companies abroad and promote the National Ballet of China.

However, when asked whether she was satisfied with the achievements the National Ballet of China has made under her direction, Zhao was silent for a few seconds and said: "It is good, but not so good."

She says she is concerned about the patronage and the unhealthy ballet market.

"I have made huge effort to attract patrons," Zhao said. "It's really hard. Although we have had a few generous sponsors, most Chinese companies set their eye on instant profit.

"Also, I hope one day we can have a regular season. Beijing's ballet market is dominated by some over-publicized Western productions, especially those from Russia such as Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty.

"Most of the shows can't justify the incredibly expensive tickets, but they occupy good venues at holiday time."

(China Daily September 28, 2005)

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