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Ottawa Citizen News: Western ballet, Chinese plot
Famed Guangzhou Ballet to dance sold-out show at NAC tonight

For centuries, the steamy city of Guangzhou in southern China has been a meeting point for different cultures. Arab pirates sacked it. Persian merchants turned it into a wealthy Silk Road port. Later, European traders, who knew the city as Canton, established themselves along the bustling banks of the Pearl River, building churches from stone and fortunes from tea.

Today Guangzhou is the third largest city in China. It has preserved its reputation as a particularly welcoming place for foreigners, and is known for being more multicultural, liberal and orderly than other Chinese metropolises. It's not surprising then that China's youngest ballet company - a troupe that has built its reputation on a compelling mix of dazzling Western technique and traditional Chinese storytelling - is based there.

The Guangzhou Ballet has only been around since 1994, but the company has already won critical accolades and an enthusiastic following at home and in the West. Its formidable founding artistic director is Zhang Dandan, a former prima ballerina with the National Ballet of China.

Zhang remembers a time when our familiar Romantic ballets were as exotic to the Chinese as their opera is to our Western ears.

"As an artist, I have witnessed rapid, dramatic change in China, especially in the ballet world," said this ethereal yet steely slip of a woman, speaking in Ottawa this week through an interpreter.

"When I was a prima ballerina, we had a lot of visiting directors from France, the U.K., the Soviet Union. We found they could show us something new, and thought, 'What a beautiful art form.' This discovery continued when we went to compete internationally.

"After the death of Mao, there was a new age in China. Today dancers in China are exposed to ballet, modern dance, contemporary - everything from the traditional to the very avant-garde."

Tonight at the National Arts Centre, the Guangzhou Ballet will give a sold-out performance of Return on a Snowy Night, a four-act story ballet with Western choreography but a Chinese plot worthy of a Zhang Yimou film. The ballet is about a tragic love between a famous Peking Opera performer and a powerful man's concubine. The choreographer is Xing Bang Fu, who was born and trained in China but calls Toronto home.

Xing, who has created several ballets for Guangzhou, isn't the company's only Canadian connection. When Zhang was starting the company, she asked Xing, a former colleague, for help in mounting repertoire classics like Giselle and Romeo and Juliet. Xing travelled to China with his assistant Simon Sylvain Lalonde to help train the Chinese dancers. In 1996 they invited the National Ballet of Canada's head coach Magdalena Popa and her husband Amato Chechiulescu to set Swan Lake on the company.

The Guangzhou dancers have been praised for their extraordinarily pure classical technique. Zhang is an exacting perfectionist, and handpicks her dancers, using the training-school pipeline method perfected in Russia and used successfully by ballet companies all over the world, including the Royal Winnipeg and National Ballet. In this system, the most promising young students in China are selected to attend the private dance academy attached to the Guangzhou Ballet, eventually graduating into the company.

"China has already achieved impeccable technique," says Zhang. "But I find expression is lacking. This is true not only in dance but in other art forms, such as music. I find a very small minority of dancers are able to express the essence, the soul of ballet. This is very difficult."

Ballet can also be difficult for Chinese audiences, who Zhang says are drawn to more "fast-food" forms of entertainment. Zhang is proud of the fact that she was a pioneer in launching an education and outreach program in her local community.

"Ballet is still a foreign art in China," she says. "Our dancers received ovations when they performed abroad, but at home people were not applauding. We found out that this was because they didn't know when to applaud. The audience needed training. So we have made a lot of effort to create a bridge between the art form and the community through forums, discussions and demonstrations."

Those efforts have paid off. The company has a special permit from China's Ministry of Culture to perform in local colleges and universities. The Chinese government also subsidizes the price of some tickets, making the art form more accessible to people with lower incomes.

Meanwhile, the company continues to rack up the frequent flyer points, adding more and more international cities to its tours each year. And in fabled Guangzhou, a place that has exported its riches for so long, ballet has suddenly become one of the hottest commodities of all.

link: http://www.ottawacitizen.com/entertainment/Western+ballet+Chinese+plot/5554418/story.html

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